Roadblocks on Canada’s Information Highway

Western Canadian farmers still struggle to get reliable high-speed Internet service

by Michelle Jones

Dale Hofstra, a dairy farmer from Millet, Alta., had trouble gaining access to reliable high-speed Internet service until the summer of 2019. He couldn’t stream Netflix, let alone fully use all the technology necessary to efficiently run his operation.

“We built this new dairy farm and, without the Internet, it basically doesn’t function unless you’re there. I can never be away from (the farm) because, if something goes wrong, you never know until you get back. The Internet is constantly letting me know where I’m at, no matter what I’m doing,” he tells Better Farming.

Hofstra recently upgraded his Internet equipment in his barn, so his connection has become reliable enough to support the farm’s technology. Because of this upgrade, Hofstra is able to be away from his farm without too much worry.

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However, he still feels that farmers – especially crop farmers – are missing out on a lot of technological advancements because of the gap in rural Internet service.

When new service providers come into the area, they disappear as quickly as they appeared, he says.

“Sometimes a new company comes out and says it will be the new biggest thing. You hear about them for a month and that’s it. Then you don’t hear about them anymore,” says Hofstra.

Before he was able to upgrade his equipment, Hofstra was part of the unfortunate rural majority who struggle with Internet challenges. These rural residents lack the option of reliable high-speed Internet – a necessity in today’s information age.

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Indeed, only 40.8 per cent of Canadian rural communities meet the CRTC’s (the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s) Internet standard of a high-speed connection which features broadband speeds of at least 50 megabits per second (Mbps) to download and 10 Mbps to upload. Users should also have access to unlimited data, the CRTC says.

“We are far behind the situation that exists in our competitor countries … like Europe and the United States. The reason why, of course, is that we have a very small population spread over a huge land mass,” Peter Casurella tells Better Farming. He is the executive director of the SouthGrow Regional Initiative in Alberta.

SouthGrow is an economic development alliance of 24 south-central Alberta communities which work together to achieve prosperity for the region, the organization’s website says.

The SouthGrow study

Since the bottom line drives most decisions, SouthGrow recently conducted a study – “A cost-benefit analysis of Alberta rural broadband deployment” – to examine the financial benefit of rural high-speed Internet access.

Dr. Kien Tran, one of the primary researchers, examined two hypothetical case studies to demonstrate the importance of public investment in broadband infrastructure.

“Financial costs – or direct costs – typically include capital, operating and maintenance costs. Benefits may include cost savings and public willingness to accept compensation, implying that the public has the right to benefit from the project,” Tran tells Better Farming.

Tran is a professor of economics at the University of Lethbridge. He’s also an adjunct professor in the department of agriculture and resource economics at the University of Saskatchewan.

In the first case study, Tran and his team examined the construction of a new province-wide fibre-optic network, which would transmit data through light signals. This public infrastructure could provide world-class high-speed Internet connectivity anywhere in Alberta.

The results showed potential benefits of just over $35 billion and costs of just over $11 billion over a 20-year period. So, approximately $3.17 would be returned to the provincial economy for each dollar invested, Tran says.

In the second case study, the researchers explored completing the same infrastructure by building on the existing Alberta SuperNet to reach the remaining communities. Using fibre-optic and wireless networks, the SuperNet provides Internet access in 429 Alberta communities. Wireless Internet speeds decrease as more people use the service, so fibre-optic Internet is the faster, more reliable option.

In this scenario, approximately $3.47 would be returned to the provincial economy for every dollar invested.

While this option may generate slightly higher revenue, the expansion of the SuperNet system “highlights the importance of investment in rural broadband infrastructure,” says Tran. “Communities not on the existing SuperNet are generally too small or isolated to attract private investment in broadband on their own.”

So, staying with the current SuperNet would put rural areas even further behind, since they could not keep up with the technological demand of today’s society once it inevitably moves toward fibre-optic networks.

Addressing coverage gaps

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Given the gaps in Internet coverage and the resulting social and economic effects, some farm communities are taking matters into their hands.

For example, the Milk River Cable Club in Milk River, Alta., has created several partnerships with large farms in the southern part of the province. A farm will pay to put up a tower on its private land, and then the telecommunications company will provide Internet service on the farm.

“A tower is going to cost you about $50,000 just for the build, so it’s not cheap. But once it’s there, (the tower) can continually provide service. And some of these large farms are willing to make that investment to get the connectivity,” says Casurella.

In Saskatchewan, SaskTel, the provincial Crown corporation which provides Internet, television and telephone services across the province, says it focuses on getting everyone in rural areas connected.

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SaskTel expects its four-phase project, which was launched in partnership with the Government of Saskatchewan in 2017, to take five years to complete. SaskTel completed 34 new towers by March 2018 and expects to complete the first two phases by the end of 2020.

The first phase brought reliable high-speed Internet service to 34 rural communities in the province, and the second phase will bring improved cellular service to 100 rural communities by the end of 2020. SaskTel will announce the new locations soon.

“We understand that reliable high-quality broadband connections play a key role in today’s society, especially in rural parts of the province where economic activity, social interaction and educational opportunities can be more reliant on an Internet connection,” Michelle Englot tells Better Farming. She is SaskTel’s director of external communications.

By using different technologies such as DSL (digital subscriber line), wireless and fibre-optic networks, SaskTel can provide Internet services to 99 per cent of the population of Saskatchewan, she says.

Of the 457 communities in which SaskTel offers DSL Internet service, 58 of them only have speeds up to 5 Mbps, which is well below the Internet standard. DSL runs on telephone lines. So, for families across the province, this service fails to meet the mark.

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Rural residents can opt for satellite Internet service, but it can be expensive.

Several companies around the world are trying to put out low-orbit satellite networks, Casurella says. These systems use the same kind of electronics that wireless networks have, but subscribers get a quicker signal because it takes the shortest distance between two points.

Looking ahead

“Being right next door to the United States, we have this attitude that the government should try to stay out of things,” says Casurella. He thinks of this Canadian attitude as a “cultural abnormality.”

But, in the past, the Canadian government became involved with essential utility services such as telephone line distribution, highways and rail. Broadband is an essential modern-day strategic service.

“Canada doesn’t have the same geographical and demographic realities (as the United States). To my mind, this is an area where it’s entirely appropriate for the governments to get involved in deploying infrastructure that has a well-proven, long-term return to society that keeps us competitive” globally, says Casurella.

As we start a new decade, farmers continue to demand reliable high-speed Internet access. They can use this infrastructure to increase production, run their operations more efficiently and support social connections. The government and other stakeholders should step up to the plate. BF

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