Modern telecommunications are still rare as hen’s teeth in rural areas, but hope is on the horizon
A mid-hearing speech, made by the chairman of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, is welcome news to rural advocates of digital equality.
In recent televised remarks, Jean-Pierre Blais said the necessity of broadband Internet access was a “self-evident truth,” shifting the focus of the current review of basic telecommunications services from proving the need for basic telecommunication, to examining how they can be delivered.
“That’s huge,” said Wayne Anderson, speaking by phone from the small island of cellular service that exists around the town of Piney. Anderson, who represents the Rural Municipality of Piney as reeve, and others lobbied hard for years to get service in the town site. They’re continuing to work with the Association of Manitoba Municipalities to bring cellular service to the southeast corner of the province.
“We had put forth a resolution to have the CRTC lobbied to make it an essential service, because it is an essential service,” he said.
In the spring of 2012 the need for better telecommunications was starkly illustrated, as massive wildfires across the rural municipalities of Piney and Stuartburn made communication both imperative and impossible.
“When we had those fires… emergency services lost radio contact and we have no cell service, then we had water bombers coming in, and it was just a fiasco,” said Anderson.
Accessing high-speed Internet is also challenging and expensive, if not impossible, in rural and northern areas of the province.
“We do have some MTS high-speed Internet in a couple of small hamlets, but it does not reach into the country at all and it’s very spotty. We had one Internet provider come by some years back and put up tiny towers, which don’t work very well,” Anderson said.
At the Keystone Agricultural Producers annual general meeting this winter, two of the resolutions put forward by members concerned telecommunications, expressing a desire for better cellular service as well as high-speed Internet access.
“It’s really good they are addressing this,” said Dan Mazier, KAP president. “Because our request is to have 25 megabits of service to all of Canada by the year 2020. Right now we are sitting around five or 10 megabits. You can get 12 or 15 through some service providers in rural Manitoba, but it is very, very expensive.”
Whether on their smartphones, a laptop or a desktop, Mazier said producers today rely on the Internet to run their businesses. Information, sales, purchases, regulations, program applications and more are all handled electronically, with data-heavy farming playing an increasingly important role in efficient production practices.
“I can do this job so much better now with Internet, with cell service,” Mazier said.
And then there is the safety aspect.
“There is a lot of hours, even on a large modern farm, where you or your employees are working by themselves, so that whole necessity to monitor and make sure everyone is looked after is more prevalent that ever,” said Mazier.
For Anderson, who operates an emergency tow truck, safety is also paramount when it comes to having cellular service.
“A lot of time I have customers who are stranded for long periods of time, and they are trying to use their cellphones, but there is no service like they are used to having in Winnipeg,” he said.
Neither Mazier or Anderson buy the argument that rural telecommunications can only be justified with a business plan, stressing the essential nature of the services.
MTS tells us it does not want to do anything about it, because it does not make business sense to provide phone service out there, that there are not enough customers to sign up is what it is saying,” explained Anderson. “But we don’t think that’s a fair yardstick. The yardstick should be things like safety. There are a lot of customers driving through the area who need service too.”
Mazier believes the ultimate responsibility lies with the federal government and regulatory bodies, like the CRTC.
“Government should have a set of rules to let business know that this is what will be provided, rather than you live in an urban centre or a rural or remote centre. It needs to say to the companies, you need to provide the same service across Canada, we don’t care how you do it, you figure it out, but the service has to be there if you want a licence,” said Mazier. “There is no reason why we can’t get service all over Manitoba. I mean to live in a modern-day society, we need access to these kinds of services.”
The findings of the CRTC’s review of basic telecom services are expected to be released later this year.