A new study by the Rural Development Institute (RDI) in Brandon says rural residents will need help becoming more Internet savvy as faster broadband services become available.
“Everybody treats broadband with a mentality of ‘build it and they will come,’” said RDI research associate Wayne Kelly.
“What we’re finding, though, is that there is a need to encourage use so that people can fully take advantage of the availability of high-speed Internet. This will become even more essential as rural communities get access to the level of service recommended by the CRTC.”
Just before Christmas, the Canadian Telecommunications and Radio Commission (CRTC) declared broadband to be a basic service and set a target that download speeds of 50 megabytes per second (Mbps) become available to all Canadians.
The CRTC will expect providers to invest $750 million over five years to build or upgrade broadband and improve access in underserved areas.
- Read more: CRTC Internet decision draws strong support
Kelly co-authored a report with colleague Scott McCullough at the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg that looked at use in rural areas of southern and central Manitoba.
The RDI study The State of Rural Information and Communications Technologies in Manitoba found access and lack of digital literacy are both barriers to increased use.
Access to moderate broadband (minimum 1.5 Mbps) is already good throughout southern Manitoba, the report notes.
An access strategy alone, without additional supports, poses other challenges for rural communities, the RDI report found.
The study provides a number of recommendations to increase both access and use of broadband. Strategies to improve access include incentives for Internet service providers, communities and small- to medium-size businesses to invest in broadband infrastructure to make the technology more widely available and affordable.
Broadband use could be enhanced by establishing and enacting plans at the provincial and community levels, supporting digital literacy and ensuring that all levels of government are developing local content to help those in rural regions use digital tools. Monitoring those strategies and conducting research to fill in knowledge gaps are also critical.
“A wide range of options for action exists for all parties in pursuing the opportunities of broadband Internet access and use,” the report says.
The federal government committed $500 million in its 2016-17 budget last March to improve rural Internet service. Last month Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains also rolled out a new federal program, Connect to Innovate, to improve Internet service to 300 rural and remote communities by 2021.
It will be used to build so-called “backbone” networks, which are the digital highways that move data in and out of communities. It will also help support satellite-dependent northern communities and also fund ‘last-mile’ connections to households that don’t have Internet speeds of at least five megabits per second.
Canada has good-quality high-speed networks in its cities and telecommunications companies invested more than $13 billion last year, Bains said in a statement noting that “the era of the smart city has arrived.”
“But this high-speed revolution cannot just be confined to cities. Networks need to be extended to remote and rural areas.”
The RDI study says a major cause of the digital divide between rural and urban areas is market failure in rural regions.
“Competitive and affordable access is the foundation for realizing the potential that broadband can bring,” the report says. “In many parts of rural Manitoba and Canada, the large geographic distances, low population density, and sometimes lower income make it difficult to attract a single ISP, let alone the multiple ISPs needed to create a competitive environment. The resulting market failure in rural regions has resulted in patchy broadband access that is substantially slower and more expensive than what is available in urban areas.”
Canada’s National Broadband Task Force in 2001 recognized the problem and recommended direct investment to ensure access and literacy across Canada but that approach was never implemented, the report says.
“Instead, the federal government spent more than a decade focusing on policies to stimulate private sector investment in high-cost rural areas,” the report notes. Additionally, these stimulus policies and investments have taken place without a national broadband plan or clear definition of targets for effective broadband. The results have been low levels of investment by the private sector, and the development of patchy, non-cohesive Internet services across rural Canada.
The RDI study can be downloaded at the Brandon University website.