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Editor’s Take: The digital divide

But rural Manitoba continues to badly lag urban Manitoba when it comes to accessing the much-touted information superhighway.

It was a pleasant, if bitterly cold, winter evening.

The Winnipeg Jets were battling the Edmonton Oilers on one laptop screen, while my spouse’s family were catching up on a Zoom call on the other.

As we closed the gap COVID has imposed amongst us, I couldn’t help but reflect how nice it would be to be able to do the same with my family.

However, that simply wouldn’t work. While the farm does have internet, and even Wi-Fi, the available bandwidth simply wouldn’t support a Zoom call. Or streaming Netflix. Or a myriad of other applications most of Canada now takes for granted.

It’s a frustrating reality for too many rural Canadians, and one that simply shouldn’t be.

We’re long past the time when internet access is anything but a necessity. Business, education, entertainment, interpersonal relationships — they’ve all rushed online in the past two decades.

But rural Manitoba continues to badly lag urban Manitoba when it comes to accessing the much-touted information superhighway.

Innovative farmers complain they can’t easily enter the world of data-driven agriculture because their data is being transported horse-and-buggy style. Farm families fret their children are being put at a disadvantage as more education resources move online. And a recent move to close MARD and MASC offices throughout rural Manitoba is sure to push more much-needed services online.

We’ve seen this rural disadvantage before. Take rural electrification in Manitoba, which began in earnest in the 1920s. The network slowly expanded connecting one rural community after another to the electrical grid.

But farms were largely left behind until a “push” in the postwar years electrified 50,000 farms in a 10-year period. By the time the program wound down in 1954, 90 per cent of the province’s farms were wired, and Manitoba led Western Canada in rural electrification.

A similar situation emerged with telephones. Provincial governments were extremely reluctant to run wire out to each individual farm.

Some farmers went so far as to build their own jury-rigged local party lines, using catalogue telephones connected to barbed wire fences.

Eventually however, the province got on board and telephone lines were run to farms across the province. But the same can’t be said for farm internet in 2021.

So far, the provincial and federal governments have done little but pay lip service to addressing this serious shortfall.

The federal government, for example, has earmarked $1.75 billion through its Universal Broadband Fund initiative. While it’s not exactly chump change, it’s also a relative drop in the bucket for a country of Canada’s size.

To put it in perspective, in 2019 a single telecommunications company — Rogers in this case — exceeded that with a $2.5-billion investment in its network, according to the company’s annual report.

Another company, Bell, has announced an $800-million spend in two cities alone. It will pump $400 million into both Hamilton and Winnipeg in the coming years.

Most of these private companies will almost undoubtedly make their investments in urban Canada, where they feel they’ll get the best bang for their buck.

Provincially, the response from the perennially cash-strapped provincial government has been even more anemic. It has partnered here and there with some of the existing telecom companies, and opened up Manitoba Hydro’s existing fibre optic network to some commercial operators. But that’s about it.

It seems if Canada’s new economy is going to be a digital one, the already infrastructure rich are about to get richer.

And it’s important to note that what little funding that has been earmarked is almost always aimed at “rural communities.” It would seem that Canada’s farms are, once again, going to be at the very end of the line for services the rest of the country has come to take for granted.

And unlike the past examples of building infrastructure out to farms, there seems to be little to no political will to invest in a digital push.

Perhaps that’s because there’s no longer a lot of farm votes to be had. Back in the ’40s and ’50s, so many more Manitobans lived on the farm, providing leaders with a powerful incentive to serve them.

But even more, it seems our society has lost its way when it comes to making investments for our own future. We don’t have that ‘moon shot’ mentality anymore.

One wonders, in today’s climate, if farmers would be told to fend for themselves when it comes to electrification and telephones.

Perhaps, eventually, Elon Musk’s vision of low-earth-orbit satellite internet will blanket the globe. But that’s a long way off.

In the meantime, as the digital age gathers steam, Manitoba’s farm families are getting left further and further behind.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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