Eliminating the rural-urban divide, one internet connection at a time

Many Canadians are fleeing cities only to realize how poorly serviced rural regions are in terms of internet access

Sylvain CharleboisThey say food connects us all. So does the internet these days.

Along with the provinces, the federal government says it is now on a path to give 98 per cent of the Canadian population access to high-speed internet by 2026. This is a much more ambitious target than the previous goal of 95 per cent by 2030.

However, there’s some uncertainty that today’s high-speed internet will be useful by 2026. In information technology, six years is a lifetime.

And the $1.75 billion announced by the federal government this week to support the policy isn’t new money.

Still, such a motivated goal set by government should be celebrated.

The new policy suggests the government now truly supports the concept that the internet is a basic service, not just a luxury.

In 2016, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) estimated that barely 40 per cent of rural Canada had access to high-speed internet. It was also noted that the marketplace couldn’t solve this issue alone.

The economics of connecting people are very weak in remote areas. The low population density in rural communities means urban centres may have hundreds of customers per kilometre, while a rural area may have just one or two.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are fleeing cities only to realize how poorly serviced rural regions are in terms of internet access. In recent months, we’ve likely all seen someone lose a signal due to poor connectivity.

Poor internet quality has been an issue for rural communities for a very long time. Farmers knew it and their businesses were affected by it. The pandemic simply made a mostly rural-based problem an urban one, which suits the federal government well these days.

Growing rural economies has never been more critical. Efficient access to information and data can only empower companies trying to make better decisions.

Farmers will certainly benefit from this new more aggressive path. The use of technologies, precision agriculture and controlled-environment agriculture can better be supported by enhanced access to data.

After all, farmers need market information, prices, and access to more suppliers to run efficient and productive farms. Better, more cost-effective farming will mean better food security for us all. It’s as simple as that.

Most farmers can’t drive to a store within 10 minutes. A single piece of broken equipment can cost them an entire day, perhaps more.

Data is like oxygen for most companies, and farming operations in rural economies is no different. Occupying our vast land and allowing rural and Indigenous communities to thrive can only be achieved by supporting them with better access to information.

Data sharing goes both ways. Easy access to data is also important for city dwellers wanting to connect with outlying regions. The overwhelming divide between rural communities and cities is affecting perceptions and, most importantly, policy. Not understanding or prioritizing agri-food policies has been one of our greatest failures as a country.

Better connectivity is absolutely the most powerful way to mitigate the effects of the rural/urban divide we’ve experienced in recent decades. For agri-food, the pandemic may have been the policy reset we all needed.

For all of us, though, these new goals provide more options. Such a policy will build a stronger case for telecommuting or getting people to work from home. According to some estimates, over 23 per cent of employers for whom working from home is a possibility plan to let their staff continue after the pandemic is over.

Your address may not matter as much anymore if the technology enables anyone to work from anywhere. Given urban sprawl and increasing real estate costs in cities, this may not be such a bad thing. Living in Mossey River, Man., while working for an organization in Toronto may be possible in a few years.

Despite our considerable land and somewhat complicated topography, Canada should continue to aspire to remain a leader in telecommunications.

After all, the phone was invented in our country, and the first long-distance telephone call in the world was made in 1876 between Brantford and Paris, Ont. The internet is just the next frontier and broadband service for all is only the latest challenge we should be able to tackle.

Unfortunately, we still don’t know if the service will be affordable for users. And it’s unclear how useful ‘high-speed’ internet will be by 2026.

With strong oversight, the CRTC should make its expectations clear, since we will have spent billions making sure everyone has access to broadband internet.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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