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Bridging the digital divide is no easy task

Rural residents are still living life in the slow digital lane

Anyone who dares suggest country life moves at a slower pace would be laughed out of the room in most rural communities, especially at this time of year as the spring-planting frenzy kicks into high gear.

But there’s one sector of the rural economy and of rural living that few would deny moves at a snail’s pace compared to cities: the internet.

It’s a reality few urbanites would comprehend. Tasks that take seconds to complete in high-speed zones can take hours, if they can be done at all.

Leeann Minogue, editor of sister publication Grainews who farms with her husband near Griffin in southeastern Saskatchewan, once started a routine update of their farm-accounting software and waited four days for it to finish. On the bright side, she never had to worry about their young son spending too much time playing games online.

Their local service improved dramatically when a small provider put up a tower near enough for them to tap into better service — for around $220 per month.

The price is steep. But Minogue isn’t complaining. Her download speeds are still far slower than city residents take for granted, but they are now “fast enough,” and fast-enough internet access is an important, some say essential, service for rural Canada.

“What are we going to do? We really have no choice,” Minogue says. “As a farm business, as someone who works from home, everything is just better.”

That’s the general gist of a parliamentary report by the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology released last month. While rural internet services are improving, many parts of rural Canada are still far behind in achieving even bare-minimum service, let alone catching up to the services available in densely populated areas. The report cites a 2017 Telecommunications and monitoring report that shows that 99 per cent of Canadians living in rural areas do have internet access (including wireless), but to speeds between 1.5 and 4.9 Mbps (megabits per second), and only 42 per cent have access to speeds between 30 Mbps and 49.9 Mbps.

“Thus, while most Canadian communities do have internet coverage, in many rural communities, the available speeds are so low that they only allow for a limited number of uses,” it says.

At the current rate of improvement, it could take 10 to 15 years, and this report says that’s holding the whole economy back.

“The digital divide harms all Canadians by preventing a share of the population to benefit from the same opportunities and services, and thus to fully participate in the economy,” concludes the report, “Broadband Connectivity in Rural Canada: Overcoming the Digital Divide.”

The federal government is counting on agriculture to lead this country’s export growth, and the sector is becoming increasingly reliant on Big Data and precision-farming tools. But those systems require high-speed access to a network for storage and analysis, and availability of that is hit and miss.

This report comes on the heels of a 2016 report by the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission that declared broadband access an essential service and said rural areas should have access to at least 50 Mbps download speeds and 10 Mbps uploads.

It found that 18 per cent of Canadians still don’t have access to that level of service, a number that seems suspiciously low considering that there is often a big difference between what service providers say they are providing and the actual service people routinely receive from day to day.

No one underestimates the magnitude of the task. Delivering broadband access, no matter which mechanism is employed, is expensive in remote and sparsely populated regions. It’s exceedingly hard to recoup a return on investment.

The Connectivity report makes several recommendations, including one that says the rules governing service providers must become a lot more flexible so that smaller operators, co-ops, and public/private partnerships cannot only enter the game, but become eligible for some of the designated government funding.

For example, the city of Olds took matters into its own hands in 2013 and set up a non-profit to implement the first community-owned, open fibre utility infrastructure network in Canada. But it has never qualified for federal support.

In Manitoba, the communities of Morden and Winkler are also investing in their own high-speed services, betting their ROI will be in the form of continued economic growth. There are several public/private partnerships boosting services in Ontario and the Northwest Territories. In Ontario, SWIFT (Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology) used “ingenious” public/private partnerships with partners that include the federal government, indigenous communities, and the University of Guelph to extend the reach of broadband services.

As well, a decade ago the Eastern Ontario Regional Network was formed as a collaboration with six ISPs (internet service providers) that own and operate a network to provide 89 per cent of households in the Eastern Ontario Warden’s Caucus access to internet services capable of reaching download speeds of up to 10 Mbps.

“Given these successes, it is reasonable to contend that encouraging broadband deployment by incentivizing P3s could support the deployment of broadband internet in rural and remote areas,” the report said.

The research is done. The reports are in. Now we wait. Rural Canadians can only hope the federal government moves faster than a spinning icon.

Laura Rance is editorial director for Glacier FarmMedia. The report mentioned above can be found at the House of Commons website. The file size is 4.6 megabytes. Internet terminology is confusing as one ‘byte’ equals eight ‘bits’ — but even with a download speed of 1.5 Mbps (megabits per second), the report should download in under one minute.

About the author

Editorial Director

Laura Rance is the Editorial Director for Glacier FarmMedia. She is an award-winning journalist who has covered agriculture and rural issues for more than 30 years.

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