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Editorial: The slow road to rural Internet growth

The other day I had the opportunity to sit down with some of the equipment manufacturers developing the latest precision agriculture technology.

The discussion was both interesting and informative and hinted at some tantalizing developments as this system really begins to get going.

But it also revealed just how dependent the whole thing is going to be on data, and just how woeful the current rural infrastructure is for the job that lies ahead.

Most precision agriculture proponents recognize that capturing and managing data is going to be one of the pillars of this field. But most also recognize that it could be its Achilles heel.

Boiled down, the problem is that mountains of data will be generated every spring and fall, a season when the last thing any farmer needs is another chore, such as downloading the numbers from a memory card. Eventually, unless that data is being set aside, the memory card is going to fill up and it will be overwritten.

The answer is to get that data off the machine and up into ‘the cloud’ where it can be analyzed. That potentially leads to simple and intuitive interpretations of the data that farmers can use to support their decisions.

However, as anyone who’s grappled with rural internet infrastructure can tell you, that’s often easier said than done.

About a day later, I also had the opportunity to see this first hand when a colleague contacted me anxiously wondering if her contributions to the upcoming issue had come through. She had spent her weekend at the family farm and had tried to file copy and photos from there, amidst repeated service failures.

As it turned out, about half had come through and half had simply vanished into the ether, requiring her to refile once she had returned to her base in a larger centre in western Manitoba.

Our minor inconvenience is a way of life for too many rural Manitobans. From cell dead zones that prevent them from making so much as a phone call while the local elevator is afire, to sketchy and unreliable satellite-based ‘high-speed’ options, the problems are everywhere.

While BellMTS committed $1 billion over five years this spring to improve its infrastructure in the province, it’s not clear how far that will go.

The issue is a significant one across the country. Rural Canada feels bypassed by the information superhighway, to the chagrin of rural advocates. They say that having modern information infrastructure is a crucial step in ensuring economic opportunities and quality of life.

It’s also become clear in recent months that government, for all its lip service to the problem, doesn’t seem to view the current situation with much urgency.

This past September the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) announced its criteria for participation in a $750-million ‘Broadband Fund’ that aimed to fill some of these gaps. However, the first move by the regulator was to slash in half the proposed speed targets, from an ambitious standard of 50 Mbps download, 10 Mbps upload, to just half that.

Just days ago a report was tabled in the House of Commons in Ottawa from the federal auditor general. Jim Ferguson was unstinting in his criticism of the current state of rural internet affairs. In particular he noted that federal programs to aid the private sector appeared to be poorly functioning.

That’s significant because his report pegged the cost of achieving 50/10 Mbps service for the entire country as “at least” $6.5 billion and noted that what should be the end goal — connecting all Canadians to unlimited speeds through fibre optic networks — bears a cost-prohibitive price tag of $40 billion to $50 billion.

It’s doubtful whether, at that cost, such a project will ever be undertaken in Canada. And the auditor general’s report noted that the high costs had federal agencies “reluctant to sign on.”

It is a frustrating situation for Manitoba farmers. Clearly, there are many tantalizing high-tech prospects right on the horizon. But until they have access to an information infrastructure that can support them, their fate will be to watch farmers in better-served regions adopt them first, and to better effect due to the well-known first-mover advantage.

Perhaps there’s some hope in proposals such as tech billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which wants to launch more than 4,000 ‘low-earth-orbit’ satellites to provide global broadband services.

That might eventually allow rural residents to ‘leap frog’ ahead and bypass the wired network entirely, just as much of Africa eschewed building a wired telephone network to move directly into cellphones.

But until something like that happens, farmers find themselves on the on-ramp to the internet, prodding the horse to go just a bit faster, while being overtaken by Ferraris.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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