Ambiguity and Uncertainty in the “Last Mile”:

Using Sense-making to Explore How Rural

Broadband Networks Are Created

Marco Adria, Dan Brown


The Internet may be considered the next substantial “public good” - a utility connecting vast and dispersed populations across time and space. Recognized as a “nation building” technology, broadband underpins the future economic prosperity, improved standards of living, and education for many individuals around the world. In fact, broadband has been compared to the critical infrastructure of the past, such as railways and roads. More recently the landscape has changed, and the Internet now appears increasingly as an “electronic enabler of commerce” with very little attention being paid to how broadband-enabled technologies contribute to the formation and development of society, although social media is emerging as a means by which citizens aggregate their efforts in support of community development. Gurstein (2004) argues that:

The early promise of the Internet as providing an alternative to centralized concentrations of power and as a means for widely dispersing economic opportunity has faded. It was replaced first by the Dotcom bubble and more recently by the current drive to make the Internet an adjunct to existing commercial interests. The vision of the Network as an enabler of communities; of the isolated; the disabled; those excluded because of location, income or physical capacity; seems to have disappeared along with public efforts supporting the Net as a tool and a resource for all, a democratizer and an equalizer of opportunity. (p. 221)

The underlying theme to which Gurstein refers is the global digital divide, describing the broad social phenomenon in which a particular individual, group, or community does not have the same socio-economic opportunities available as those with access to broadband-enabled information and communication technologies (ICTs). Gurstein (2004) looks toward the “effective use” argument, i.e., that low participation and poor content are at the root of the digital divide, when he states that “a consequence and sad result of the preoccupation with ‘access’ and the digital divide has been a crowding out of any serious attention being given to how the widespread availability of Internet access might be effectively used for self-development by individuals and communities with histories of social and economic inequality” (p. 223). Effective use as a heuristic is intended to draw out and expand the links between the globalizing effects of broadband and the day-to-day capacities that individuals and groups are able to demonstrate.

Nation-states are responding to the global effects of ICTs by developing policies to increase national economic competitiveness and to safeguard and extend capacities for maintaining cultural autonomy. As a potential response to the concerns raised by Gurstein and others, the National Broadband Task Force (NBTF) was assembled in January 2000 by the Canadian Minister of Industry to investigate the opportunities presented by broadband technology. Broadband, within the context of this study, is defined in terms similar to the definition used by the NBTF, which is a high-capacity, two-way connection medium between an end-user and network services capable of supporting full-motion video applications. In more technical terms, the NBTF stated that a minimum transmission rate of 1.5 Mbps in a symmetrical (i.e., two-way) connection qualifies as broadband (p. 2). Even though the necessary advances in broadband technology have been significant, the undertones and foreshadowing of the NBTF’s comments give some indication of the ability to develop a sustainable rural broadband strategy: “For the foreseeable future, in spite of continuing technological progress, the basic facts of Canadian geography and demography continue to mean that it will not be profitable for the private sector to provide broadband service in scarcely populated areas of the country” (p. 3).

According to the NBTF, “[b]roadband technology and new content development are inextricably interdependent. Without broadband, the new content will not emerge; but broadband without enticing new content will not attract users’ interest and allegiance” (p. 32). The implications of this statement are that both content (i.e., uses) and broadband technology (i.e., access) must evolve together and that a co-generative relationship exists. Regardless of from which side of this argument people view themselves, the reality is that little progress can be made unless a broadband network is as a first step made available to those who do not have access. In other words, “effective use” can only be considered once use is at least made possible. The infrastructure of the network as defined by policymakers at both the federal and provincial levels in Canada is the hardware of the physical network, in addition to the information technology required to manage the network. The NBTF acknowledged this fact when referring to remote communities. Referring to the situation at the time, the document stated:

Today, there is a connectivity gap between Canadians living in these communities and those living in urban settings. In the future, as the performance of both economic structures and public institutions becomes increasingly dependent on access to advanced ICTs, there is every danger that these communities will be left behind and that the QOL (quality of life) gap will widen. (p. 36)

Figure 1 reveals the global digital divide between the developing and developed worlds and represents the quality of life gap referred to by the NBTF, as updated through statistics gathered since the NBTF’s publication. Although the graph is global in nature, it represents the magnitude of the overall gap between those with access and those without.

Figure 1: Graph of global Internet users per 100 inhabitants between 1997 and 2007
Source: International Telecommunication Union (ITU). (2007). [Graph illustration of global internet users per 100 inhabitants between 1997 and 2007]. Retrieved from

The importance of bridging this digital divide was considered to be a high priority by the NBTF, which ultimately made an aggressive recommendation to connect every community throughout Canada with broadband capabilities by the year 2004. Alberta is 1 of the 10 provinces of Canada. Alberta has a population of some 3.7 million people, with a land base approximately the size of France or Texas, with an economy based on the export of natural resources, particularly petroleum commodities such as oil and natural gas. Each Canadian province is constituted by an order of government that shares spending and taxation powers with the federal government of Canada in areas specified in the Canadian constitution.

Broadband networks are developed within the legal and regulatory framework of the nation-state, and in Canada the NBTF was the most prominent and clear policy document produced to that time. Alberta was the first province in Canada to follow up on the general thrust of the NBTF through the construction of the Alberta SuperNet, which was completed in 2005.

Broadband networks and the SuperNet: What are they?

The SuperNet became part of the infrastructure for delivering the Alberta government’s rural development strategy as well as addressing the digital divide between rural and urban areas within the province. The advantages of having access to this type of broadband communication technology were viewed by the Alberta government in a fashion similar to the NBTF. Although the Alberta government did not refer explicitly to the NBTF in its policy statement, the policy goals, which seek universal access to broadband for social and economic development, were almost identical (see, for example, The NBTF’s goals included:

  • Encouraging rural youth to remain and sustain the rural communities.

  • Providing an incentive for young professionals to move to rural communities.

  • Providing access to information which increases market opportunities.

  • Improving quality of life and dispersing infrastructure in a more equitable manner.

  • Improving safety and addressing environmental concerns via e-commuting.

  • Increasing available pool of talented workers by enabling rural e-commuting.

  • Improving access to healthcare services and continuing education.

  • Enabling ecommerce and banking services.

  • Facilitating cultural, community capacity, and other development.

  • Enabling access to government services and information.

  • Providing access to sources of entertainment (NBTF, 2001, pp. 19-35).

The framework or model for the SuperNet was one of reduced barriers to entry and open market competition. In brief, the Government of Alberta achieved these objectives by funding part of the capital necessary to construct the network with the participation of the private sector through Bell West, which funded the extended portions of the network. The government then transferred the operation of the network to a third-party private corporation, whose role is to provide contractually fair and open access to the network by cultivating a community of local Internet service providers (ISPs) that provide connectivity to the SuperNet from households and businesses, coined “the “last mile”. The term is conceptual and refers to the logistical, economic, and especially in terms of this study, ideological problems associated with financing the wide access to broadband envisioned in national and regional policy for Internet access (Stull, 2009, p. 28). SuperNet bandwidth is offered at a fixed price of $50 per Mbps per month, regardless of location in the province. In this way, the government leveled the playing field for competition. In areas in which local ISPs can build a profitable business model for provisioning these services, this model has been extremely successful. In fact, as of December 31, 2007, 242 communities had a local service provider(s) enabling broadband access to their residents. These numbers translate into over 80 percent of Albertans having access to broadband services. In contrast, however, these numbers represent more than 150 communities in Alberta that do not have access to broadband services. Many of these communities have fewer than 3000 residents and given the small numbers of residents, many local ISPs are unable to develop a profitable business case for providing broadband access. Additional roadblocks include the estimated high cost of capital required and, as the author surmises, that a great deal of uncertainty exists about the future of any investment made by local ISPs in “last mile” infrastructure (i.e., towers, fiber, wireless).

In spite of its efforts to link the benefits and effects of globalization of ICTs and the local rural population’s economic competitiveness and cultural autonomy, Alberta is now paradoxically among the lowest in Canada among the 10 provinces and the two northern territories for rural broadband availability, as shown in Figure 2. This paradox is significant to this research and will be explored in greater detail as it relates to the effect of ambiguity and uncertainty on rural broadband adoption rates.

Figure 2: Diagram of broadband availability in Canada – Urban vs. rural (percentage of households)
Source: Canadian Radio and Telecommunication Commission. (2010). Retrieved from

Sense-making and rural broadband networks

We offer in this study in part an examination of policy development and in part the application of a method of qualitative data-gathering and analysis. Our qualitative method involves attention to the sense-making process of key actors. Sense-making is characteristic of what individuals experience when organizing or “making sense” of equivocal or uncertain information, arising from the appearance of new phenomena in the social environment. The sense-making perspective uniquely focuses the research lens in this study by asking the question “What don’t we know?” about the state of rural broadband adoption. More traditional approaches, especially statistical analysis of current and past usage of the network, involve asking, “What do we know?” about rural broadband adoption. Sense-making constitutes a theoretical paradigm of communication that is an alternative to the paradigm of transmission. Rather than conceive of sending and receiving of messages, sense-making considers messages as “constructions that are tied to the specific times, places, and perspectives of their creators” (Foreman-Wernet, p. 5).

The seemingly similar terms, ambiguity and uncertainty, are somewhat different in relation to sense-making. Ambiguity follows from the perception that more than one course of action is available, whereas uncertainty refers to the belief that following any course of action may be undesirable. Our research question was to identify the means by which individuals and groups, including state actors, contributed to a situation of ambiguity and uncertainty involving the social meaning of broadband access.

We hypothesized that the adoption and uptake of the rural broadband by communities is influenced by not only physical barriers, but also barriers resulting from exposure to the ambiguity and uncertainty surrounding the social meaning and context of broadband.

The following list provides examples of potential contributors to ambiguity and uncertainty, i.e., what we don’t know, about the question of rural broadband adoption. They are:

  • The introduction of new broadband technologies. It is unclear, for example, as to whether the NBTF (2001) realized the potential for advances in broadband technology to influence ambiguity when they recommended maintaining technological neutrality (i.e., not showing preference for any one form of broadband technology) if the government were to take an active role in developing rural broadband (p. 5).

  • The high capital cost associated with the necessary broadband infrastructure adds to the uncertainty and risk around return on investment. The high capital cost is part of the engineering challenge of building the physical network, but it brings with it the question of why government should allocate funding for a capital cost in relation to its ideological approach to the potential public good of broadband

  • Identifying the actual demand and perceived benefits of broadband technologies within rural communities produces ambiguity. Although, it is difficult to find evidence of comprehensive market surveys, a Washington Post article by Kang (2009) is a case in point. Kang looks at two communities similar in size and broadband access. One community attracted two large companies with several hundred new jobs associated with them, while the other community attracted only a few home-based businesses. Kang observes that technical and business skills were the relevant variable for the two cases. However, one of the questions for policymakers is whether the potential benefits perceived are attainable? Also, do the number of perspectives and disagreements over benefits within rural communities (in other words, the high level of ambiguity and uncertainty expressed by multiple individuals and groups) have an “immobilizing” effect on the development of rural broadband?

  • The ISP subscriber model is the primary business motivation for providing services to citizens, although Alberta government services are managed as part of the network without the involvement of ISPs. It is unclear as to whether ISPs can obtain an adequate number of subscribers to be profitable. In addition, competitive threats, changing technology and the high cost of entry are contributing factors.

  • Regulatory processes and public sector participation. What role will the Alberta government play, if any? Given the uncertainty around the government’s intervention plans (i.e., grants, loans, infrastructure arrangements) it is conceivable that private enterprises would delay investing in rural broadband due to the financial risks associated with competition or interference from the public sector.

The point of access to the study was a gathering of stakeholders involving Alberta government officials, executives from the telecommunications companies Bell West and Telus, academics from Alberta universities, and entrepreneurs seeking to establish or expand their ISP or other services. This meeting, held in 2008 while SuperNet construction was continuing, provided the researchers with a means of examining and reflecting on the sense-making processes associated with the SuperNet.

Ambiguity can serve a useful purpose through its ability to stimulate creative sense-making and provide a mechanism for individuals within a society to “internalize” meaning about a new technology or phenomenon. For example, Mitchell (2009) points out that “the primary stage of information gathering is important because historical studies of technological innovation [have] taught us that regularly the use the designers imagine for their innovations to accomplish have little or no relationship to how they are eventually taken up in social use” (p. 9). The relevance of this statement in the context of sense-making is that the social and communicative processes employed to make “sense” of a given technology typically result in enacting an environment (i.e., uses) different from what was originally conceived. The Alberta government wanted economic development in rural areas, while ISPs wanted to gain economic rents with minimal capital investment. As Henfridsson (2000) explains, “the co-existence of meanings makes it difficult for organizational actors to relate the phenomenon to his or her daily (working) life” (p. 89).

The central meaning of the SuperNet involved the tension between the on-the-ground practices and priorities of local communities and the language, rhetoric, and strategies of economic and social development espoused by government policymakers. The construction of the SuperNet and the subsequent efforts to encourage uptake and use by citizens reveals something of the interaction between what Schuler and Day (2008) call “local skirmishes and global forces.” As de Moor and De Cindio (2007) note, the community network must emerge out of design principles, and these principles must reflect the notion that “communities matter” in design:

Systems design for communities goes beyond just creating some technologies and offering them to user communities, assuming that they know what to do with them. Rather, it entails making explicit the usage context of the technologies: what are the goals, the workflows, the roles community members play? What are the principles, such as legitimacy and transparency, driving their interactions and the articulation of their information and communication requirements?

We will suggest that a self-fulfilling prophecy emerges from the interpretation and meaning established by those with a significant stake in the creation of the SuperNet. A self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when individuals mentally create a situation in which the results are what they expected, i.e., they find what they set out to discover. The results they arrive at are, at least partially, a result of their expectations. The existence of the self-fulfilling prophecy problem means that social actors are more inclined to validate and strengthen the existing situation rather than contribute to and support such change. They may be less likely to observe or recognize constructive change when it does occur.

In the case of the SuperNet, delays and seemingly intractable engineering design and construction problems became part of the day-to-day expectations for respondents, with the result that expectations for “effective use” of the network, i.e., the adoption by communities to address areas of concern and opportunity, as they identified them, remained low. The capital cost of the SuperNet was justified in terms of economic development in rural areas, with the local use as it might be understood and enacted taking a secondary role. We argue that as a consequence, the anticipated use has not to date taken hold in the ways that policymakers expected or wanted.

Purpose of study and research questions

The purpose of the study was to analyse the current environment relating to the adoption of broadband communications technology (i.e., high speed Internet) in rural areas of Alberta. Specifically, we wanted to identify the forces of ambiguity and uncertainty that underlie the digital divide. We approached the research question from the perspective of both the theoretical implications of the SuperNet as an example with potential relevance for understanding other broadband networks being built in Canada and beyond. But we also were concerned with understanding the perspective of actors seeking to maximize the use of the SuperNet for economic and social purposes. One of the researchers is an academic at an Alberta university, and the other was a part-time graduate student in communications and technology (now graduated), whose full-time occupation was and is as an information-technology executive in the province. We explored how exposure to ambiguity and uncertainty has contributed to the state of broadband adoption in rural Alberta. We therefore regarded ambiguity in the way that Weick conceives of equivocality, that is, as the quality or nature of having multiple interpretations or meanings. We explored how industry decision-makers describe their strategies for reducing ambiguity and uncertainty in the social and economic context of completing the “last mile” in rural Alberta. Specifically, we asked:

  1. What strategies are employed by industry decision-makers for reducing ambiguity and uncertainty in the social and economic context of broadband development in rural Alberta?

  2. How has ambiguity and uncertainty experienced by industry decision-makers and broadband stakeholders influenced the speed of rural broadband adoption?

On March 28, 2008, the Rural Broadband Access Roundtable was held. The event was hosted by the Van Horne Institute, University of Calgary, and other members of the Alberta SuperNet Alliance Research Project, the group of researchers originally formed to study the significance of the impact of the SuperNet on Alberta society. A large number of representatives from industry, government, academia and community were present to discuss the current state of broadband in rural Alberta. By selecting and conducting interviews with specific attendees of the Roundtable, a further exploration was possible into the influence of ambiguity and uncertainty on the current state of broadband.


The study employed the use of Weick’s (1995) sense-making framework to identify themes of ambiguity and uncertainty surrounding the topic of rural broadband. Sense-making is the process through which individuals make sense of and create their environments. As such, Weick (1979) provides the entry point for which to begin a review of literature through his definition of organizing, which is “a consensually validated grammar for reducing equivocality by means of sensible interlocked behaviors” (Weick, 1979, p. 3). Using this definition, Weick argues that information from the environment is persistently equivocal to some degree and hands us the theoretical lens with which to view the environment encompassing rural broadband. Expanding on this concept, Weick explains that “organizing is like a grammar in the sense that it is a systematic account of some rules and conventions by which sets of interlocked behaviors are assembled to form social processes that are intelligible to actors” (1979, p. 3). Sets of interlocked behaviors and social processes are developed through inter-subjective communication processes as individuals form recognizable structure through discursive, social interaction. In other words, the social processes are individuals’ sense-making experiences that result in the creation of structured environments. Individuals collectively make sense of their worlds through social interaction. As they interact, individuals influence each other’s sense-making processes and new shared meanings develop: “[T]here is a shared sense of appropriate procedures and appropriate interpretations, an assemblage of behaviors distributed among two or more people, and a puzzle to be worked on” (1979, p. 4).

The connection between sense-making and organizing is critical for our argument, because we argue that the interpretations about the SuperNet emerging from the sense-making process will have an influence on how individuals and groups organize, i.e., use the SuperNet. In the context of this study, the puzzle being worked on is the rural broadband environment. Taylor and Van Every (2000) expand Weick’s organizing as ongoing and mediating in the way it frames the material world and provides the necessary inputs for its reconstruction (p. 163). Because of this relationship, it is ultimately through reconstruction that individuals come to understand and make sense of changes in their environment. Figure 3 illustrates the relationship between individual sense-making processes and organizing activities as reconstruction occurs. Organizing activities (i.e., enactment, selection, retention) embody sense-making processes (i.e., noticing, bracketing, identity construction, focusing on extracted cues and plausibility) which occur retrospectively in an ongoing, reciprocal interaction with the environment (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005).

Figure 3: The relationship between individual sense-making and organizing activities
Source: From Jenning and Greenwood (2003), adapted from Weick 1979, p. 132, in Weick, Karl. E. & Sutcliffe, Kathleen, M. & Obstfeld, David. (2005). Organizing and the Process of Sense-making. Organization Science 16(4), 414.

Rip, Misa and Schot (1995) discuss the importance of constructive technology assessments for developing a balance between the perceived benefits of a technology and the true implications for society. Overtones of Weick’s (1995) collective sense-making can be observed as Rip, Misa and Schot (1995) remark, “Therefore, even if clear values are present and shared, it is often impossible to identify an optimum strategy beforehand. This implies that experimentation and societal learning must be an integral part of management of technology in society” (p. 4).

Finally, Rogers (1995) explains that technological innovations diffuse via multiple communication channels, over time and through a social system. The social systems he describes resemble diffusion networks which are comprised of interpersonal relationships through which new innovations are discussed and sense-making occurs (p. 331).

Data collection and analysis

The primary data collection method used in this study was four semi-structured interviews which involved five respondents selected from industry and representing various professional backgrounds. Some interviews were carried out with more than one participant in attendance. The method was used with an emphasis on the validity of respondent reports, accomplished through in-depth interviews and qualitative analysis. The hermeneutic circle, which gives attention to the relationship of interdependent parts to the whole that they form, is a key principle in interpretive studies (Klein & Myers, 1999). The hermeneutic process has been described in relation to Miles and Huberman’s (1994) principle of alternating between cultivating theoretical concepts and returning repeatedly to what research subjects have said. In this way, the abstract concept of the SuperNet, which involves the social construction of technology as a fundamental theory of human action, was considered in a way that allowed for potential generalization. The hermeneutic circle was developed through attention to the relationship of the theoretical perspectives to the transcripts through successive stages of analysis. Data analysis therefore proceeded in a tandem relationship with the activity of data collection, allowing each to inform the other. It was carried out iteratively, tacking between examinations of data and development of a conceptual framework. In this hermeneutic process, analysis of respondents’ statements corresponded to the parts of the emerging conceptual framework, while theoretical interpretations corresponded to the whole. The conceptual framework was structured according to the dimensions of the worldview associated with communities of practice: knowledge, values, meanings, assumptions, beliefs, and practices (Pawlowski & Robey, 2004; Wenger, 1998). Transcripts were coded according to rubrics corresponding to these dimensions, which are the etic level of the analytical coding system, corresponding to the “outsider’s” point of view, that is, that of the analyst.

Other than respondents being considered stakeholders of rural broadband in Alberta, no other demographic considerations were made or deemed necessary. The main requirement for consideration to participate in this research study were a level of involvement with or participation in, the rural broadband environment in Alberta. Each selected participant was considered to have a significant stake, either personally or professionally, in the topic of rural broadband access and availability in rural Alberta. The selection method with which the respondents were identified as stakeholders of rural broadband was through the occasion of the Rural Broadband Access Roundtable. The characteristics of the sample respondents were required on the basis of the research question and the theory of sense-making (i.e., reducing levels of ambiguity and uncertainty in the rural broadband environment) and that of organizing. That is, we analyzed the network of stakeholders or “collectives” collaborating over the question of rural broadband through Weick’s (1979) organizing lens.

The sample was small. Small-n samples can be used in studies concerned with sense-making, in an attempt to emphasize validity and the in-depth exploration of meaning and interpretation used by social actors within their social contexts. The sample was selected so as to ensure that respondents were concerned with and could address aspects of the study’s problematic. For example, within the population from which the sample was drawn, a high degree of awareness of the Alberta SuperNet exists. Although direct knowledge of the Alberta SuperNet was not a requirement for involvement in the study, the atmosphere surrounding the SuperNet’s development was well known to respondents, in that respondents were familiar with the controversy over whether the Alberta government should increase its investment and involvement in developing the SuperNet.

Since the SuperNet was completed in 2005, 150 of the 429 communities that have a SuperNet POP site are still, in 2011, without broadband access. In other words, the initial expectations of the SuperNet to bridge the digital divide between rural Alberta and urban areas have not been fulfilled. Given these factors, it is anticipated the term “SuperNet” could be used synonymously with rural broadband technology and influence the opinions of the sample respondents. This is not the focus of the research, but a necessary factor to consider in the context of studying ambiguity and uncertainty in the “last mile”, especially given the pervasiveness of the subject.

The respondents included the following: an owner of a private ISP with a history of operations throughout rural Alberta (i.e., Alberta incumbent local exchange carrier) that did not participate in the Roundtable but had a large stake in rural broadband initiatives because it remained the owner of a significant portion of the existing local and regional network; two respondents from a Toronto-based wireless communications company that did not attend the Roundtable, but which is working on a demonstration project showing how broadband can be constructed in rural Alberta jointly with an Alberta start-up ISP organization that did participate at the Roundtable; an individual representing the Alberta start-up ISP organization conducting the demonstration project just mentioned and who had representatives at the Roundtable; and an individual representing the Van Horne Institute and other private research interests in a consultative capacity on the subject of rural broadband access in Alberta. Table 1 shows respondents by profession and by participation in the Van Horne Institute’s Roundtable.

Table 1: Research Participants




Did not attend Roundtable


Alberta Incumbent ISP



Wireless Communications (Ontario)



Wireless Communications (Ontario)



Private Research/Rural Broadband Consultant



Alberta ISP Start Up







The series of open-ended questions (see Appendix 1) used to conduct the interviews sought to obtain each respondent’s perspective in four topic areas: the role of broadband in rural Alberta; factors affecting the rate or speed of adoption of rural broadband; perspectives around their participation/non-participation in the Van Horne Institute Roundtable; and options for extending the “last mile”. These four areas provided a range of discursive possibilities for respondents to address the research questions. During the preliminary stage of analysis, a coding framework was developed to serve as an instrument through which to identify occurrences of sense-making. The coding framework was derived from Weick (1995) and based upon his seven properties of sense-making: centrality of identity and identification, importance of retrospective views, tendency to enact meaning, social nature of communication, ongoing character, emphasis on extracting cues, and favouring plausibility over accuracy (see Weick, 1995). In addition, the interview design and data analysis took into account the two stages in which sense-making unfolds, the situation-defining stage and the communicational tactics stage (Foreman-Wernet, p. 13).

Table 2: Excerpt from the coding framework

Name and code


Grounded in identity construction

Who a person is as indicated by discovering how and what they think

Individualized – “I” IDT-INDIV

References made by the interviewee in the first person – i.e. “I” did such and such, or “my” company, etc. Cues to look for are self-enhancement, self-efficacy and self-consistency.

Applying this framework to the transcripts provided a method with which to categorize and reduce the volume of data and create meaningful groupings. As discussed below, sense-making is the “outcropping” or observable process individuals employ when attempting to reduce levels of ambiguity or uncertainty. In other words, through identifying various sense-making patterns, the researcher is identifying structures of ambiguity and uncertainty below the surface. Encapsulating these patterns are the words and assumptions used by the respondents as sense-making occurs. Observing these words and assumptions, the researcher identified an emerging hierarchical structure. The preliminary findings after the initial stage of interviews identified a number of occurrences of sense-making and suggested that ambiguity and uncertainty are present in the “last mile”:

  1. Within the context of a sustainable and economic business case supporting rural broadband initiatives;

  2. Within the context of a complex and often bureaucratic system of regulations and oversight;

  3. Within the context of the perceived benefits of broadband to rural Alberta and remote communities;

  4. Within the context of the Government’s role in funding/supporting rural broadband strategies;

  5. Within the context of the current and future broadband technology development and solutions; and

  6. Within the context of the marketplace (competition, subscription rates, etc).

After the preliminary stage of analysis, the interview transcripts were analyzed in an iterative fashion alternating between the analysis and refinement of theory/codes to apply in subsequent iterations.

Making sense of the “last mile”

The five themes that emerged as a result of applying the coding framework are presented in Figure 4. Within the context of this study, the themes identified are considered to be the primary sources of ambiguity and uncertainty relating to the topic of rural broadband and help to answer the question “what don’t we know?” about rural broadband adoption. The first theme relates to the sustainability and economics of the business case for rural broadband and includes two additional themes related to the business model for delivering broadband access in rural Alberta. The second theme refers to the role of government and regulatory processes and includes three additional themes including the process followed by regulatory bodies. The third theme considers trends relating to technology and Internet service providers and includes four themes encompassing the role of technology, availability of expertise and infrastructure, and wireless spectrum spectrum (the rights sold by the federal government to use part of the radio spectrum). The fourth theme relates to the role of broadband within rural communities and includes three additional themes relating to community involvement and awareness of the benefits of broadband. The fifth and final theme relates to the expectations of broadband in rural Alberta and includes two themes dealing with community and socio-economic development and the delivery of expected services as well as the anticipation of the timing of rollouts and broadband availability.

Figure 4: Emergent Themes in the Data

Emergent Themes

  1. Currently, a sustainable business case for rural broadband does not exist.

  • Market awareness

  • Subscribership and profitability

  1. The role of government is unclear to stakeholders.

  • Regulatory approvals, access to towers

  • Spectrum availability

  • Funding programs

  1. The pace of technological change influences broadband participation.

  • Availability, types and evolution of technology

  • Wireless spectrum dependency

  • Infrastructure

  • Availability of technical expertise

  1. Broadband currently plays a limited role in rural Alberta.

  • Community Activism and involvement

  • The role of broadband and awareness of its benefits

  • Education and knowledge

  1. The expectations for rural broadband have changed very little over time.

  • Community development

  • Rollouts and penetration

Collectively, these themes represent what individual respondents were thinking in relation to broadband development in rural Alberta. The following section will discuss the relationship of these themes to the original research questions as well as directions for future research.

Findings: Research question 1

What strategies are employed by industry decision-makers for reducing ambiguity and uncertainty in the social and economic context of broadband development in rural Alberta?

Sense-making processes were employed by respondents to reduce levels of ambiguity and uncertainty as they discussed topics relating to rural broadband development. Respondents were observed making sense of the “last mile” business case by exploring potential opportunities to enhance an ISP’s ability to succeed. One respondent, recalling from memory, discussed the results of a study that had been undertaken to measure the interest in rural, high speed Internet. The respondent indicated:

We did a market survey .... I believe it was the close of 2006, beginning of 2007, it indicated from the people that 85% wanted high-speed Internet, 15% weren’t interested. If anything it’s increased and, you know, sometimes you’re always worried about market shrinkage because you take the time. We’re really concerned about providing Albertans with a good product, a really solid product and sometimes you think, “Am I compromising my timing to my delivery? Just get it to market.” But . . . you can move quickly and effectively but you have to do your homework and you have to build a sound, sound base.

A direct government subsidy paid to ISPs was a common theme among respondents. However, clearly an unintended consequence to this approach is that reduced barriers to entry (i.e., subsidies) would potentially increase the number of ISPs competing to provide service. If this were to occur, it would have the opposite effect of diluting the subscriber base for all ISPs and exacerbate the problem. Clearly, this was a concern for respondents and heightened their uncertainty.

At the same time, respondents suggested that communities should lead their own efforts such as building tower infrastructure in order to entice an ISP into the community. sense-making was present during respondents’ discussions about needing clearer indications on the actual demand for rural broadband services. In particular, respondents indicated a desire to understand the felt need or the actual demand for rural broadband which was interpreted as a related sense-making effort used to reduce uncertainty (i.e., not enough information).

The role of government and regulatory processes were observed to be themes where intense sense-making transpired. In particular, respondents shared their thoughts about the government’s intervention plans and where they best saw the role of government. Subsidies to ISPs and infrastructure sharing arrangements were the two main roles of government suggested by respondents. With respect to regulatory processes, respondents were observed to be making sense of the application processes to “sign up” and use the SuperNet’s backhaul services. Participants suggested that a high degree of bureaucracy exists with respect to application processes indicating a belief about the low ease of access to the SuperNet. Contrasting these comments, respondents offered that a general sentiment of frustration exists with respect to the uptake of the SuperNet as a backhaul. Specifically, one respondent suggested that the SuperNet is operating a mere fraction of its capacity when stating:

I think, by and large, the overwhelming feeling is one of frustration and certainly the uptake on the SuperNet has not been anything like the province expected, so I don’t know if you’ve had any success in getting usage because of the SuperNet or whether you’ve tried to. A couple of people weren’t speaking particularly for the record, but they weren’t speaking in confidence either; one was the representative of Bell, who said that the traffic was 5% of capacity.

The government’s role in providing access to licensed spectrum was discussed by respondents as they spoke about the need for licensed spectrum being the largest roadblock to providing wireless broadband services. At the same time, wireless broadband was discussed as respondents made sense of the cost benefits of wireless infrastructure being the best choice over technologies such as fiber optics and satellite. Respondents tacked back and forth between technology selection and infrastructure as they were observed making sense of other factors affecting technological deployment.

Complicating this process was the consideration of the limited availability of technical expertise to support rural broadband installations. Several respondents made sense of the role of the community by suggesting that the community must play an active part in the development of rural broadband. Awareness of benefits and knowledge (i.e., culture) of use were used to describe the forces of attraction that would lead rural communities to participate in the rural broadband question. Rural communities and municipalities were identified as having “woken up” to the benefits of broadband, which indicates a significant factor in market awareness. Some respondents in particular provided the opinion that rural communities were making broadband a political issue by choosing who to vote for based on their broadband promise:

So, we can’t overlook the key role the municipalities play and Parkland County plays into that picture as well but probably Parkland County is a good example of the municipality reflecting the local populations of frustrations and desires and electing a Mayor on the promise of rural broadband. So the municipality is playing a key role but it isn’t the leader of the processes when citizens actually get the municipality to the point of acting.

Respondents made sense of the role of broadband being tied to the values of work and family. Keeping the family unit whole and enabling remote workers to communicate with family while “in the field” working, were indicators of a strong values connection to broadband access.

Developing the themes identified under the role of government, respondents viewed “spectrum” as a resource to be controlled in order to be successful. Specifically, respondents commented that:

Spectrum was the key one that I was thinking of. The spectrum right now is locked up by certain, you know, spectrum holders and they’re not . . . It can be quite challenging for new operators to try and get spectrum because it’s all locked up right now.

In reality, electromagnetic spectrum consists of invisible, ubiquitous particles that are vital for telecommunications. As an ideal, respondents viewed spectrum as being more widely available in order to level the playing field for smaller competitors. In this sense, respondents were seen as considering spectrum as essential for beating the competition and not as a public good.

Findings: Research question 2

How has ambiguity and uncertainty experienced by industry decision-makers and broadband stakeholders influenced the speed of rural broadband adoption?

As stated earlier, sense-making can lead to creative solutions which emerge while attempting to reduce ambiguity and uncertainty. In order for the outcome of the sense-making process to have an immobilizing effect, that is, reducing the tendency for individuals to act, it is reasonable to consider that as the situation which develops becomes more unmanageable, or more precisely, the attempts to reduce ambiguity and uncertainty are unsuccessful, and the ability to take necessary action becomes increasingly difficult. Just what steps could, or should, industry decision makers and rural broadband stakeholders alike take in the context of developing rural broadband? Weick (2001) states that “much ambiguity occurs because there are events floating around that seem to bear no relation to one another. Because it is not clear what is going on, it is even less clear what ought to be done about it” (p. 49). The question becomes, what is it about the persistence of ambiguity that could lead to an immobilizing result?

A partial answer lies in what Weick (2001) refers to as a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, as individuals experience their world, their experience shapes their perception, which in turn influences how they experience their world. A self-fulfilling prophecy is what occurs when individuals mentally create a situation in which the results are what they expected (i.e., they find what they set out to discover).The relevance to the sense-making process is that outcomes are determined by confirmations of beliefs and expectations. Weick states:

When perceivers act on their expectations, they may enact what they predict will be there. And when they see what they have enacted, using their predictions as a lens, they often confirm their prediction. The joint product of this directive action and selective attention is a set of inputs that match expectations and make sense. (1995, p. 152)

Over the long term (i.e., the longer the duration that self-fulfilling prophecies reinforce themselves), the more entrenched self-fulfilling prophecies become. In discussing a classroom experiment Weick (1995) explains that self-fulfilling prophecies were reinforced through social interaction that lasted for eight months. Weick (1995) comments, “This is crucial because it is clear that the general social interaction sequence in which that initial expectancy was embedded repeats itself over and over” (p. 150). Weick goes on to reference Henshel’s (1982) concept of serial self-fulfilling prophesies. Serial self-fulfilling prophesies help explain how, as confidence and credibility increases (i.e., as what is expected to be found is discovered), a validation cycle develops and unfolds over time with increasing speed and comes “to dominate as the prevailing definition of the situation, because it is clearer, more meaningful, and more stable than the surrounding events that are more loosely coupled” (p. 151). Stating that rural broadband adoption rates can be explained by people having their perceptions validated is an over-simplification of the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Expectations are the driving force.

Weick and Sutcliffe (2001) provide the insight that “expectations are like an invisible hand that guides you toward soothing perceptions that confirm your hunches, and away from more troublesome ones that don’t” (p. 41). A self-fulfilling prophecy brought on by ambiguity and uncertainty, developing strength over time, has an enormous impact on decision-making processes. “If people consider many alternatives, or both positive and negative alternatives, or argue over objectives, these all raise uncertainty that can lower motivation, commitment and impact” (Weick, 2001, p. 50). On the one hand, sense-making processes are stages on the path to action or, as Taylor and Van Every (2000) put it, “sense-making is a way station on the road to a consensually constructed, coordinated system of action” (p. 275). When a self-fulfilling prophecy develops as in the case of the “last mile”, these processes become debilitating. Henfridsson (2000) identifies deeply embedded attention structures as those responsible for guiding sense-making: “When restricting, these attention structures can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies and vicious circles” (p. 101).

We argue that self-fulfilling prophecies create an environment of inertia in the context of the adoption by rural communities of effective practices related to rural broadband. Interview respondents shared their specific beliefs about the rural broadband environment which uncovered their self-fulfilling prophesies regarding the government’s intervention strategy. Several different expectations for the role of government were discussed (i.e., ambiguity) by respondents (i.e., direct subsidy, building infrastructure, freeing up spectrum) which indicates the belief that a role for government should exist or needs to exist for rural broadband. Additionally, respondents provided their perspectives about the ability to share and access common infrastructure to aide in developing rural broadband and the “last mile”:

Well there’s been a few initiatives that have taken place, particularly under the federal government side, with access to towers, with co-location on towers, trying to force, maybe force is too strong a word, but trying to coerce people into talking more about sharing tower infrastructure.

Respondents stated that the role of government had yet to materialize in any concrete form, which validated respondents’ perceptions and created a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, respondents’ expectations about the role of government were varied and speculative, referring to what the government’s role “should” or “could” be, as opposed to what the actual role of the government was. Without clarity, stakeholders can be observed to have potentially been deterred from taking independent action.

Equally as strong were respondents’ expectations about the rural broadband business case. Respondents discussed the uncertainty surrounding the ability to subscribe ample customers in order to be profitable. They also described the challenges surrounding supporting operations with limited availability of technical expertise in rural communities. A self-fulfilling prophecy therefore developed that a sustainable ISP business model for rural broadband did not exist. In this sense, respondents’ expectations or beliefs were an indicator of a self-fulfilling prophecy and that such prophecies have the potential to stymie creative solutions for developing a sustainable business case. They further delay necessary risk-taking and action. If continuous input from the environment is validating the belief that a business case does not exist, ISPs and other stakeholders are unlikely to act.

Finally, respondents expressed strong opinions regarding the particular choices of technology used to deploy rural broadband. A self-fulfilling prophecy was observed to exist to the effect that wireless technology would be the best technology for deploying broadband. Low capital cost and flexibility with difficult terrain were some of the reasons respondents gave as their rationale for preferring wireless technology to satellite delivery, for example. At the same time, respondents expressed uncertainty surrounding the availability of licensed spectrum (the rights sold by the federal government to use part of the radio spectrum), availability of subsidies and grants for building infrastructure such as broadcast towers, longevity of wireless technology decisions (when would the technology become obsolete, for example?), and the requirement by government that towers would be shared.

A directly related and subsequent self-fulfilling prophecy was evident toward the dependence on licensed wireless spectrum. Respondents indicated that licensed spectrum was essential for providing wireless rural broadband. At the same time, respondents acknowledged that the Alberta incumbent (Telus) and the government’s auction processes were potentially standing in the way of new, small Internet providers entering the business. The nature of this self-fulfilling prophecy with respect to technology came from the respondents’ perspectives that wireless broadband is the best technology to use. Having developed this perspective, respondents provided responses that were directed toward the associated challenges with wireless deployments. In other words, when it came to discussing challenges with rural broadband deployments, respondents discussed themes that reinforced their beliefs regarding wireless as the best choice. The significance of this finding for the study is that as a preference for wireless technology builds, respondents are more apt to search for and have their hunches confirmed about the issues impeding wireless rural broadband deployments, which has the effect of delaying action. In this case, delaying action has meant that the impetus for further investment was reduced, with the implication that the network would not expand to serve many of the rural residents who had expected it to arrive.

Conclusion: Encouraging rural communities to act

Broadband systems such as the SuperNet are an important means by which rural communities around the world can gain access to global networks of knowledge and communication. As we noted in the introduction, they are also a means by which nation-states and regions seek to increase their economic and cultural sovereignty. Rural broadband can therefore be seen as a critical nexus between global and local flows of both capital and ideas.

Respondents in this study stated that a “grass-roots” community movement is a necessary ingredient for successfully developing rural broadband. They gave a range of suggestions on how to accomplish this, from working alongside ISPs, to municipalities building their own transmission towers, to allowing service providers to share space. A clear role for government in the rural broadband domain could be the development of community capacity to build local broadband strategies. Direct funding to communities to establish strategic-planning workgroups could be considered. In addition, providing resources and expertise outside the community to contribute to the development of the strategy would be useful. As a first step, a “grass roots” or inside-out approach to delivering rural broadband would create the necessary momentum and critical mass upon which a successful program could be established. Once a clear vision and plan for each individual community is created, including the particular type of technology (such as wireless or fiber optic) chosen for that community, the next step would be engaging with ISPs and telecommunications providers. Without a more complete picture and plan for “how” each community will use broadband technology, the current fixation on “what” each community needs may well continue to result in flagging progress as levels of ambiguity and uncertainty grow and self-fulfilling prophecies are magnified.

A concrete recommendation would be the appointment of what have been called community intermediaries. The sense-making carried out by industry representatives and others is influenced by the individuals and social groups who help to contextualize rural broadband in communities. Governments could take a greater leadership role in broadband development by providing assistance to rural communities for community intermediaries who could carry out the identification and development programs mentioned above (Rideout et al., 2007). Community intermediaries can not only provide communities with expert knowledge and advice but also create one of the means by which communities can envision the relationship between the global effects of broadband technology and their potential application for local benefits. They can begin to establish the necessary connections and relationships within the community and create what Flora (2007) considers essential networks for building social capital: “Networking creates the bonding social capital to make an effective team and access to the external resources helpful to their efforts” (p. 69).

Fostering a strong sense of community and the importance of trust were discussed by respondents as critical for interacting with community stakeholders. In fact, respondents suggested that rural Albertans tend to overtly trust members of their own community, while they remain skeptical of individuals or organizations from outside the community. Community intermediaries can therefore be part of the effort to generate trust.

Instead of having an outside group or organization discussing solutions and bringing promises to rural Albertans, or in other words, take the negative sentiments discussed regarding the failed promises of the Alberta SuperNet back to government, government could designate community intermediaries who possess a high degree of trust and respect within their community to provide leadership around rural broadband development initiatives. This strategy may help to establish the momentum required to stimulate action. In order to install the required community champions, an advocacy group could work with communities to identify and develop these individuals. Serving as a resource centre, this group could provide a network of relationships to other communities, ISPs, government departments to aid each community in developing a local solution. Although governments have been directly involved in appointing community intermediaries to date, communities should take action to appoint them, preferably with government assistance but possibly without, if necessary.

Hollifield et al. (2007) also advocate for the community-intermediary approach. They also encourage developing strong public-private partnerships to help increase awareness and success of a telecommunications project (p. 60). Public-private partnerships can result in a strong collaboration, at least in their potential to generate a broad political consensus of the legitimacy of the allocation of public funds, and a combination of addressing the community’s interests alongside the interests of the private sector (i.e., a profitable business model) which in turn can accelerate broadband development. They further support the notion that a decentralized model is more likely to succeed when it comes to rural telecommunications development projects (p. 61).

This study is part of the research showing that the “stymie factor” to rural broadband development is that limited action has resulted due in part to self-fulfilling prophecies created by the presence of ambiguity and uncertainty. This being the case, one possible answer is to start taking action. What action? Hollifield et al. (2007) argue that taking any action is appropriate, because failures can lead to success and “a previous community-based effort contributes to a context that encourages future development attempts” (p. 65). Such actions can begin to reduce the levels of ambiguity and uncertainty surrounding rural broadband and directly challenge the self-fulfilling prophecies that exist. Weick (1995) elaborates:

Each person and organization chooses who it will be by first choosing what actions, if any, it needs to explain, and second, by choosing which explanations for these actions it will defend. An inability or unwillingness to choose, act, and justify leaves people with too many possibilities and too few certainties. Binding decisions affect the tasks we are attracted to, the reasons that move us, the values we try to realize, the plans we admire, and the people we seek out. Avoidance of such decisions slows the development of attractions, reasons, values, plans and associates. (p. 160)

In conclusion, this study has developed a framework for observing and identifying acts of sense-making within the rural broadband organization by using the theory and methods of sense-making. Through the use of individual, semi-structured interviews as well as reviewing historical town hall transcripts, the research was able to identify what individuals were thinking and saying about rural broadband development in Alberta. It would be useful to include a number of focus groups in addition to the interviews in a subsequent study. Sense-making is an individual process (i.e., a person makes sense of his or her environment) conducted in a social setting (i.e., in a society surrounded by other sense-making individuals). Individuals influence each other’s sense-making processes synchronously, i.e., in real time. Conducting focus groups to observe how individuals influence each other’s sense-making processes would expand upon this research. Future research may also consider looking at developing a quantitative measure for levels of ambiguity. Admittedly, developing a measure for a phenomenon that is subject to varying and conflicting interpretations will be no easy task.


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Appendix 1

Interview Questions

1. How would you describe the role that broadband plays in rural Alberta?


i. Enabling technology? In what ways?

ii. Thinking about how broadband can provide expected services; what are some examples of those services?

2. Thinking about what you have discussed and/or heard about the state of rural broadband adoption in Alberta, what, in your opinion, are the major factors influencing the speed of adoption?


i. Can you provide specific examples of this?

ii. In your view, what factors would influence someone’s (an organization’s) decision to participate in providing “last mile” broadband connectivity in rural Alberta?

iii. How has this changed in the last 12 months? 24 months?

iv. Where do you see the adoption of broadband in rural Alberta heading in the next 12 months? 24 months?

3. On March 29th, 2008 the Van Horne Institute and The University of Calgary hosted a Rural Broadband Access Roundtable at the McDougall Centre in Calgary. This session was a leading edge method of consultation in that it brought together many diverse groups into a neutral forum to stimulate creative discussion around the state of broadband adoption in rural Alberta.

a. You Did attend the session. Reflecting on what was discussed during the Roundtable (i.e. The mayor of Parkland County’s opening remarks regarding broadband access in his community, the change drivers (new “last mile” technologies, business models, availability of infrastructure, telecommunications (Bell, Telus), competitive, regulatory and industry (CAPP) perspectives), in your view what was the overall outcome of this session? What clarifications were made for you during this session about rural broadband adoption in Alberta? How did the information that was shared help you to frame the state of rural Broadband adoption? What information specifically do you recall from this session? Why do you think you recall this specific information?

b. You Did Not attend this session. However, given what I have just explained about the purpose of the session, what information would have been of interest for you to have shared/for you to have obtained with/from this group about the state of rural broadband adoption in Alberta? For example, what do you believe is the single biggest challenge facing rural broadband adoption in Alberta?

  1. PROBES – Infrastructure? Regulatory? Competition? Economics? Cultural and Social implications?

4. Can you think some options that exist for extending the “last mile” and delivering broadband access to all of rural Alberta?


i. If these options exist, what do you believe are the major barriers preventing over 150 rural Alberta communities from acquiring broadband access?

ii. What suggestions could you make to these communities?

iii. Are you aware of examples where groups of individuals have organized to provide specific solutions to the perceived challenges of “last mile” broadband connectivity? In your opinion, have these groups reduced or contributed to the complexity surrounding rural broadband connectivity? Why?

The Journal of Community Informatics. ISSN: 1712-4441