WINNIPEG -- The Manitoba government is working to improve broadband cell service in rural, remote, and Indigenous communities.

Premier Brian Pallister and Central Services Minister Reg Helwer announced at a news conference on Thursday that the province signed a memorandum of understanding with Xplornet Communications Inc. This partnership will help to connect 125,000 unserved or underserved residents to high-speed internet services as early as this fall.

“This pandemic has reinforced that the virtual reality many of us now take for granted remains a virtual dream for far too many of our fellow Manitobans,” Pallister said, noting a person’s future success shouldn’t be dependent on where they live in the province.

The province noted that its agreement with Xplornet will provide broadband services to about 30 First Nations and 270 rural and northern communities. It will also provide 350 communities with cellphone access.

“Too many Manitobans, more than in any other part of the country, are deprived of the opportunity of reliable internet and cell service, particularly our rural and northern communities, in particular our Indigenous communities,” the premier said.

“We’ll advance as a province only when we advance our knowledge infrastructure that allows everyone to join in that progress.”

Through Manitoba Hydro, the province owns thousands of kilometres of fibre-optic cables across the province. However, most of the network is surplus, unused capacity.

“It was paid for by Manitobans, but it’s sitting unused with no immediate plans for use in the future,” Helwer said.

Now, through the agreement with Xplornet, the province will make use of this surplus capacity.

The province, Manitoba Hydro, and Manitoba Hydro Telecom are working to finalize the contract in the coming weeks. 

Adrien Sala, the NDP’s critic for Manitoba Hydro, said access to broadband is “incredibly important,” especially now during the pandemic when so many things are being done virtually.

However, he said the province’s announcement was actually about transferring, “publicly-owned fibre-optic cable and infrastructure from public hands over to private hands.”

“That is not something to be celebrating,” Sala said.

He said up until now, Manitoba Hydro Telecom, a publicly-owned subsidiary of Hydro, managed this fibre-optic cable and infrastructure.

“By all measures, they’ve been doing an incredible job in expanding access to broadband services across this province and keeping costs low for Manitobans in doing that,” Sala.

He said that handing over control to a privately-owned company will have “major” impacts, including costs going up for Manitoba broadband customers.

Sala said another potential impact is that it is less likely for broadband services to be expanded to isolated and northern communities, because a private company will have more incentive to expand to more populated parts of the province.

He said giving the fibre-optic cable to a private company could also potentially shut out a number of Manitoba-based internet service providers.

“There are a lot of questions here to be asked about how this announcement will impact Manitoba-based companies that are fuelling our local economy,” Sala said.

He said the way forward is to empower Manitoba Hydro Telecom to continue doing their work in a way that keeps costs low.