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How GIS is helping rural British Columbia communities get better connected

The Strathcona Regional District (Strathcona RD) provides services to over 48,000 residents in north central Vancouver Island, Discovery Islands and mainland area inlets. The Strathcona RD, along with partner CityWest Telecommunications, is working to improve connectivity to 139 rural and remote communities along BC’s west coast. The project goes beyond the Strathcona RD’s boundaries—using GIS applications to help bridge the digital divide.

Strathcona Regional District (Strathcona RD) is a British Columbia regional government providing services to over 48,000 residents in north central Vancouver Island, Discovery Islands and mainland area inlets. Covering over 22,000 square kilometres, the Strathcona RD provides municipal services including water and sewage systems, fire protection, parks, bylaw enforcement, emergency planning and response, and broadband. Many of the communities in Strathcona RD are considered remote, with no access except by water or air.
I spoke to Douglas Sauer, a GIS analyst with the Strathcona RD, about a partnership he works on called the Connected Coast project, the aim of which is to bridge broadband Internet gaps in rural and remote communities and First Nations on Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii and BC’s coast.

An aerial photo of Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k’tles7et’h’ First Nation, showing several small tree-covered islands off the coast of a small community with red- and blue-roofed buildings. On the left-hand side of the photo there are mountains in the distance. On the right-hand side of the photo is the Pacific Ocean. Photo credit:

Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k’tles7et’h’ First Nation, in Strathcona RD. Photo credit:

Reaching across the digital divide

There are many BC communities that do not yet have access to the CRTC’s minimum standard of 50 Mbps down and 10Mbps up Internet speeds. These communities are rural and remote, many without road access. This puts them out of reach of many municipal services that are considered baseline services by urban residents. One third of these communities are First Nation communities who are greatly affected by the digital divide.

The Connected Coast Partnership, which was initially conceived in 2016–2017, is a partnership of Strathcona RD and CityWest (a subsidiary of the City of Prince Rupert that provides telecommunications services in northern British Columbia). The project is funded by provincial and federal programs. BayLink Networks (specialists in subsea fibre and marine cable deployments, based out of Port Coquitlam, BC) are the prime contractors for the design and installation of the network. The project covers primarily "backbone infrastructure"—namely, large-scale subsea infrastructure encircling Vancouver Island and connecting to Haida Gwaii, BC’s coastline to Vancouver and Prince Rupert. (Connections to terrestrial landing sites, known as "last mile" infrastructure, are facilitated by Internet service providers.)
In the summer of 2022, construction of the network began. Laying subsea cable being a complex process, and the area covered being large, meant that getting a single clear picture of the work being done was essential for understanding overall program progress and communicating with the diverse stakeholders involved.

Against a gray sky, four workers on a boat handle a large wooden spool of cable. Each spool is almost as tall as a person. The cable from one spool extends past the edge of the boat. Photo credit:

Workers on a boat install a large spool of subsea cable. Photo credit:

Originally, GIS was used to create static PDF maps of the project. These PDFs were essential for supporting the process of obtaining permits from the provincial government. However, they couldn't provide other stakeholders with up-to-the-minute updates or give them the ability to learn more about cable routes or landing areas. Data management was also a challenge with this format: ingesting KML files without a consistent structure or schema, dealing with data issues like insufficient or inconsistent metadata, converting files, and producing snapshots of databases all created challenges with the communication of project progress.

The pace of change was also a challenge: sometimes new files were received, or changes were required twice per week, without notation to indicate where those changes had been made. Because of the scale of the project, it became difficult to implement the required changes with a quick turnaround. Limited staff resources and time compounded the problem.

A new solution was needed so that up-to-date, accurate maps could be provided to stakeholders quickly. GIS had the answers.

Visualizing the work

Sauer started pushing to create a web-based version of the PDF maps he'd started with. A web-based option would allow staff and project partners to access project information and enhance their ability to collaborate.

Creating the application didn’t happen overnight. Sauer had to first work with the project leads to identify their requirements. For example, he had to develop a symbology that would match the project leads’ needs and ensure that the right information—such as build status—was available on the ultimate application.

The solution—the Interactive Build Status Map

Douglas developed the Interactive Build Status Map, an interactive map-based application, in ArcGIS Web AppBuilder, the predecessor to ArcGIS Experience Builder. It’s a highly configurable, low-to-no-code solution for building interactive web applications, including web maps like the one for the Connected Coast Partnership.

A screenshot of the Connected Coast Partnership’s Interactive Build Status Map, zoomed in on the middle portion of Vancouver Island. The water is represented using blue and the land is largely coloured green. There are red and green lines on the map showing where undersea cable has been laid as part of the Partnership.

Stakeholders can use the application not only to see a high-level overview of project progress, but also to search for specific landings—that is to say, specific locations where the fibreoptic cable is coming ashore and can be accessed by local internet service providers (ISPs).

An animation showing some of the features of the Connected Coast Partnership’s Interactive Build Status Map. The user is able to pan to specific lengths of cable, view pop-ups that describe features of each of those lengths, change the basemap to get different context for each of these cable projects and learn more about the project.

An animation showing some of the features of the Connected Coast Partnership’s Interactive Build Status Map. The user is able to open up a pop-up called “Legend” to better understand what the symbols on the map mean. The user can also filter the map by survey area.

One recent addition to the application has been more detail to be added on individual landing sites, including ISPs associated with those localities and expected time for service delivery.

What’s it like?

The Connected Coast application opens up information about this critical infrastructure project to entirely new audiences. Residents—especially people living in the more remote reaches of BC—can use the application to better understand where the landings will be, how they'll be able to get service, and when. ISPs and funders can also use the application to learn about project progress and the current state of construction. Finally, project participants can use the application to get a better picture of what's going on and collaborate more closely.

Better access to information and services for 139 communities

“What's really special for me is 139 communities—many of which don't have reliable internet—one-third of these are First Nation communities, and these places are not road accessible, they're highly remote,” says Sauer. “The vision is really to enable those communities to get access to information. But it’s more than that: it’s also about access to telehealth, education, e-commerce, the wider world. It’s a huge win for people living there or considering relocating there.”

Want to turn your static information products into interactive, shareable tools that more people can use? Check out ArcGIS Experience Builder for a low- to no-code option that will expand how you communicate with your audience. Or, for more on how organizations are using an understanding of geography to bridge the digital divide, listen to our podcast episode featuring Infrastructure Ontario.

About the Author

Sergio Palladini is the Industry Manager for Telecommunications at Esri Canada. He is focused on illustrating the importance of geospatial technology as it applies to the telecommunications industry. Sergio has significant experience in helping telecommunication operators around the world see the value of location intelligence and spatial analytics for enhanced decision support across their enterprise. He holds an undergraduate degree from Queen's University and a master's degree in Geographic Information Systems from the University of Calgary.

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