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Editorial: Testing the limits of rural Internet

Anyone who’s spent time recently in voice-mail jail can confirm often it’s best to take one’s interaction with large organizations online.

True, it’s probably just a cost-cutting measure and they’re pushing that cost onto you, the client. But it’s often also undeniably easier to take the self-serve option, where you do it yourself, at a time and place that best suits you.

The caveat of course — and it’s a big ‘except’ for much of rural Manitoba — is that your connectivity has to be up to the job. And there are few places where this lack of options is more evident.

A regular complaint I hear from readers and friends and family is of slow, choppy and unreliable service. Even BellMTS’s recent promise of $1 billion in investments to improve service seems destined to do little to address this shortfall, according to reports on CBC and in the Winnipeg Free Press.

Here in 2019, as business and government shifts more and more toward online, it just won’t do.

One of our reporters recently unwittingly engaged in a mini case study on the various classes of online citizens in Manitoba, through the annual ritual of booking campsites.

For the uninitiated, Manitoba’s Park Reservation Service offers an online portal to book campsites throughout the provincial park system. Competition can be fierce for limited resources, particularly during peak demand times like over long weekends and during the early weeks of school vacation.

It’s especially difficult if you have various members of a family who want to camp together, as hers does.

Therefore, the family, using every available online resource, drew up a campaign that would have made the military proud.

Among those deployed was Dad, back on the farm, using the radio wave internet all too familiar to Manitoba producers. There was Mom and the grandparents in town, using the slower, but more adequate internet of small-town Manitoba. Then there was our reporter, in the big city of Brandon, with what passes for state-of-the-art service in the Keystone province.

Watches were synchronized, organizing phone calls were held, everyone was familiarized with getting ready ahead of time to press the button the second the system opened for business. At the countdown, they simultaneously began booking, and the results were revealing.

In Brandon our reporter was in and done in minutes. In a smaller rural centre, Mom and the grandparents were thousands of numbers back in the queue. Back on the farm Dad couldn’t even get into the system.

I’m willing to bet most of our readers could tell a similarly frustrating tale. I can personally confirm some of these difficulties myself from my periodic visits home to see the family. One example that leaps to mind is trying to buy a new propane tank for my brother and mashing the mouse button repeatedly as the auctioneer called for new bids, only to see the sale end before the message got through.

These might both seem like minor complaints, but over time they will add up, and eventually they will become a quality-of-life issue for farm families.

We’ve seen this before. Back in the postwar years as urban centres throughout North America benefited from the boom and saw rising standards of living, the continent’s farms often didn’t enjoy amenities like electrification or the telephone. Sociologists of the time fretted often about what they characterized as “the farm problem.”

Whether or not we’ll have a modern-day ‘farm problem’ remains to be seen, but so far it’s not looking good.

The CRTC has acknowledged the problem and touted its strategy for “closing the broadband gap” — and then promptly slashed its own targets in half, even as urban internet speeds continue to expand exponentially.

Today most rural Manitobans can’t do things online that virtually everyone in urban Manitoba takes for granted. They can’t stream Netflix. They can’t stream a music service or a podcast. And apparently they can’t even book a campsite until all that’s left are the scraps.

This problem is only going to get larger. Agriculture is poised for a data revolution, but what good is data if you can’t access it or transmit it? Manitoba farmers will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage to other jurisdictions with better information technology.

Perhaps eventually we’ll see something like low-earth-orbit geostationary satellites emerge, which will leapfrog fibre optic wired connections, much as cellphones have leapfrogged wired telephones in Africa.

Unfortunately, the fact that it would improve the quality of life for the one in five Canadians still living a rural existence isn’t enough of a reason. This needs to be fixed because it’s good for Canada too.

If the federal government is serious about making agriculture an engine of growth in the green economy, solving the rural connectivity issue is an important step.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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