Too many producers are without reliable service, putting them at a disadvantage.
By Becky Dumais
Farms are important businesses that run serious equipment, yet their rural location puts them at a disadvantage for securing a reliable, high-speed internet connection. What good are those technology-enabled systems if you can’t even get online? Simply having internet access is no longer enough; being restricted by a limited choice of providers or burdened with costly overages is also unacceptable.
Hefty funding from the government and other interested parties, along with the creation of new programs to bring internet – and 5G – to these areas, promises to help catch bridge the Prairie ag community’s digital gap.
Nathan and Suzanne Pelzer live 20 minutes north of Regina, Sask., and operate a grain farm. Over five years ago, she said the internet wasn’t an absolute must for them, until the pandemic. “As the world has shifted, internet has moved from a luxury to a necessity,” she says. “As the years have passed, our ability to have an acceptable connection has been almost non-existent.
“We aren’t always able to complete work from home and school from home, and that has been extremely difficult. We often have a very, very slow connection and/or no connection. I spend hours on the phone with tech support and have had countless service calls.
“The frustrating part is we aren’t that far from the city for the lack of service we can get. We have had every company possible out to see if they can achieve a better service and often are told no. It makes it extremely hard and yet we still pay for a service, plus a premium, that allows us tech support every month and yet our internet still doesn’t work at the best of times.”
Operationally, she adds that “access to operational programs such as accounting and field managing are not always easily accessible on demand.”
Leaders in the agricultural sector are lobbying to have internet access deemed an essential service. “That’s part of the push … across the country – that we really need to be treating connectivity much like we did electricity 80 years ago – that it is an essential service,” explains Keith Currie, vice president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA). “It’s how we do business (and) how we’re being enabled to do business in 2022.”
The Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan (APAS) surveyed its members in 2019 regarding internet and cell service levels. Not surprisingly, most responses indicated dissatisfaction with service and they experienced disruptions daily – sometimes several times a day.
With the arrival of COVID, more people working remotely and learning online across Canada. In July 2020, APAS surveyed members again. “It quickly became clear that the problem of rural connectivity was made much worse by the pandemic,” according to the report on rural connectivity APAS’s Rural Connectivity Task Force released last March.
“Our internet service is so slow on the farm that our children could not participate in any interactive online learning. Videos won’t load, Zoom meetings won’t work. Our cell phone service has been a problem for our business for years, but while we were on quarantine after travelling we had to get in our vehicle and drive miles in order to download email or texts,” said one survey respondent.
Clearly, which the report indicates, the importance of good rural connectivity cannot be overstated.
If a dollar amount could be tacked onto the tail end of the issue, according to the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, the economic value of connecting rural Saskatchewan could add an additional $1.2 billion to the province’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Will access for all level the playing field? Perhaps. The APAS report also states that research shows having high-speed internet is associated with higher producer yields, “growth that the provincial government is relying on to achieve its economic targets over the next decade.”
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has set minimum standards for broadband internet speeds of at least 50 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 10 Mbps for uploads.
These speeds are what the CRTC identified as what’s needed for Canadians to take advantage of cloud-based software applications, multiple government services (i.e. telehealth services, business support) online learning resources and high-definition streaming videos, and can support use by multiple simultaneous users.
The CRTC cites that 87.4 per cent of Canada has broadband speeds of 50/10 Mbps, unlimited service, but only 45.6 per cent of rural communities do.
Since August 2020, Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) has been working with Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada on the Internet Performance Test to help the government decide on the best use of funds to help connect rural Canadians. Their data suggests that at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, median download speed in rural areas was about 5.42 Mbps, far behind the median 26.16 Mbps in cities.
Those in the city benefited more quickly from speed improvements yet rural areas still lagged far behind. CIRA’s study says that by March 2021 the median speed in cities grew to 51.09 Mbps, compared to about 9.74 Mbps in rural areas, indicating an even larger gap in connectivity.
Canada is dragging its feet behind other countries that have loftier goals regarding universal internet access, according to APAS’s report. Denmark aimed to achieve twice the speed (100 Mbps) for 100 per cent of its citizens by 2020. South Korea now delivers 100 Mbps service to its residents.
Both APAS and the Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) have been conducting their own tests with CIRA. According to APAS’s report, test users experienced download speeds of less than 10 Mbps – a very small fraction of the CRTC’s 50 Mbps recommendation. The RMA is urging all rural Albertans to go online to complete the speed test at: https://rmalberta.com/speed-test.
Funding the internet of things
Looking to connect Canadians coast to coast, the Government of Canada has committed $7.2 billion to broadband internet infrastructure, including $2.75 billion through the Universal Broadband Fund. These investments are aimed at getting 98 per cent of Canadians high-speed internet access by 2026; 100 per cent are to have access by 2030.
According to the government of Alberta, there are about 201,000 house- holds in Alberta without access to high-speed internet; 80 per cent of Alberta’s Indigenous households and 67 per cent of rural households don’t have access to CRTC target speeds. In a statement on the government of Alberta’s website, it says the province is working with federal government to share the estimated $1 billion it will cost to expand rural broadband internet to these underserved areas.
“Broadband connectivity creates opportunity for our children and our communities. It enables rural economic development, increases access to healthcare, creates smart farms, improves education, enables information sharing to address crime, promotes rural living and enables us to be world leaders in a range of industries,” Paul McLauchlin, RMA president said in a press release.
In Manitoba, provincial government signed a contribution agreement with Xplornet Communications to provide broadband services to nearly 30 First Nations and 350 rural and northern communities – equivalent to approximately 125,000 Manitobans.
In the southern part of the province, the Canada Infrastructure Bank, Valley Fiber Ltd. and DIF Capital Partners will be principal contributors to fund broadband projects through the Southern Manitoba Fibre Project. This project will be dedicated to benefit over 49,000 Manitoba households via 2,550 kilometres of fibre-optic cabling.
In December SaskTel announced the 24 communities it plans to bring SaskTel infiNET service to Saskatchewan as part of the fourth phase of its $100 million Rural Fibre Initiative. The company plans to start construction in 2022 and expects to have most residents and businesses fibre ready by the end of 2023.
Cell coverage is a major concern. “To be honest, all things considered, lack of cellular coverage is a much bigger problem in my opinion,” says Chris Yake, a producer in Snowflake, Man. “Internet seems stable enough now to manage a business. However, with lack of cell service if I had a dollar for every time Bunge put a text out for a canola special and I’m in the tractor with no service for hours and the special gets filled and I miss out. That’s not cool. That directly impacts me in various ways over the season.”
Canada's Connectivity Strategy, another government initiative, also plans to improve mobile cellular access across the country. Even though fifth generation (5G) cellular network development began in 2019, most Canadians are still on 4G LTE networks – and some people may only receive a 3G connection, depending on where they live.
Since the government is currently consulting on how it will roll out 5G connectivity across Canada - this provides the ag sector with an opportunity to help shape public policy to bridge the digital gap. The CFA hosted a webinar on Jan. 25 in conjunction with Telus about 5G connectivity and what it means to Canadian farmers (viewable on YouTube: https://youtu.be/Kc9_yd2VczY).
Currie believes that 5G is a game changer. In relation to what he refers to as the broader rural perspective, “trying to put fibre-optic cable in the ground right across the country doesn’t make sense from an economic standpoint. It’s just not going to happen,” he says. “But that connectivity is still important for rural communities – agriculture in particular.
“We need connectivity for our machinery and our equipment – but so do our rural communities because the businesses in these rural communities are (those) that serve us in agriculture. So, it’s important for them to be connected as well.”
This is where he says 5G comes in. “It’s a game-changer as far as that connection aspect. If I’m trying right now to upload information from my combine and my tractor that I’m using in the field, it’s probably going to take me a week to 10 days under the current system, so it’s needed.”
Currie says from the estimates he’s seen, moving to 5G will add close to $40 billion to Canada’s GDP over the next five years. “That’s how important 5G is.”
Internet service to Currie’s farm operation in Collingwood, Ont. is decent, but it’s costing him about $1,500 a year. “It’s very expensive to get high-speed internet. Getting that connectivity at a competitive rate is certainly something we’re looking at as well but certainly the function of 5G is what’s important now.”
Relying on a good cell signal is vital, not only for safety reasons, but what if you’re suddenly stranded in the field? When Currie’s tractor broke down mid-use, he had to make an urgent call to the dealer. “I was fortunate that I had cell service at that time and he connected to the tractor through Bluetooth and he fixed my problem.
“I want my machines to be talking to each other. So does everyone else, especially during critical times like harvesting, but especially seeding – when people are using variable rates of fertilizer in the field depending on the yield mapping data they have and what the soil data is, etc., − that takes connectivity.”
Internet and cellular connectivity could also help deal with labour shortages.
“For the most part machinery doesn’t get sick or need holidays, and I don’t want to downplay the need for a good labour force but even if you want to flip it over into the whole climate change conversation, when you look at agriculture, we are a long, long way off yet of commercially having electrified vehicles available to us,” Currie says.
In the meantime, if the industry wants to have any impact on emissions from fossil fuel combustible engines, it will be through autonomous vehicles. “They don’t need cabs, air-conditioning, and autonomous vehicles will require connectivity to operate efficiently and effectively,” he explains.
“That’s going to be the next step in where we’re going to go with emissions reduction, (but) if we don’t have the right networking out there to allow us to connect to be able to have that kind of equipment, we’re in trouble.”
Currie is confident that the more access to digital connections producers have access to, the more they can produce.
“We can be more efficient and produce more, and not only is that good economically but it also helps us (environmentally); the less trips I can make over the field the better it is for me economically and the better it is for the planet too.” BF