By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, Editor, myWestman.ca
NEEPAWA, Man. — If you ask rural Canadians about the biggest thing holding their communities back, directly or indirectly, it almost always comes down to technology. In rural Canada, the unlimited, cheap, broadband internet and five bars of cell service urban Canadians take for granted is some combination of non-existent or expensive.
The role of connectivity is vital. It goes beyond the obvious and communities without it are at a distinct disadvantage. Almost every business is driven by information, it’s almost impossible to attract businesses to a community where accessing the broader world of customers and suppliers isn’t easy to do. It’s important for education, not just in the formal sense, but it also allows farmers and small business owners to find out about what’s going on beyond the community and how it might help their business— whether it’s market reports, news or researching new products or services. It’s a key component of the next wave of precision agriculture. High-speed internet is a crucial part of residents’ lifestyle and recreational needs.
Infrastructure Canada recently released a report about rural Canada. Called “Rural Opportunity, National Prosperity, An Economic Development Strategy for Rural Canada,” the report looks at how the federal government plans to address the challenges faced by rural Canadians. Not surprisingly to anyone who has used the internet in rural Canada, one area of focus is connectivity. It’s a prime situation for some government help. Low population density, remoteness and at times, challenging terrain, means we can’t rely on market forces alone to bring rural and remote Canadians this vital service.
Increasingly, governments are recognizing the importance of broadband connectivity and in 2010, Finland was the first country to make a minimum broadband speed a legal right. Since then, other countries have followed suit, including Canada. In 2016, the federal government set a target speed of 50 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 10 Mbps upload (“50/10”). This target was set in 2016, with a deadline of 2021 to supply 90 percent of Canadians with these speeds.
We’ll need to see a lot of improvement within a short amount of time. In 2018, government figures showed that 4.9 million Canadians lacked access to the 50/10 standard. Their figures showed that only 37 percent of rural households were able to access the target speeds. I am one of these 4.9 million Canadians; at home, my cell phone registers a download speed of just below 20 Mbps, while I can get an upload speed of just over 10.4 Mbps. Compared to my home internet, which registers download speeds between 5 and 15 Mbps and 1 Mbps of upload speed if I’m lucky, it’s blistering. For comparison’s sake, 97 percent of households in urban areas have 50/10 service.
Since the 50/10 target was announced three years ago, we haven’t seen a lot of measurable change. It really just seems like we’ve seen a consolidation within the market. It might be a coincidence, but if providers are getting government funding, Canadians would be better served by more competition to help push for service improvements, not less. As a consumer on the ground, it’s not entirely clear to me how service will be so dramatically increased.
More and more countries are setting universal service standards and for most, the deadlines will be coming up within the next three years. The challenges Canada faces in connecting our scattered population are harder than those faced by Belgium, Sweden and Taiwan, but more countries pushing to bring this essential service to all of their residents will inevitably make better technology available to all of us. Lack of access to affordable broadband is the major factor hampering the economic development potential of rural Canada. Until rural Canadians fully enjoy this right, we will be a shadow of our country’s collective potential.