WESTERN PRODUCER — Gaining access to reliable, high-quality broadband is only the first step in closing the gap between rural and urban Canada, delegates to the recent Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities convention heard.
Ken Coates, the Canada research chair in regional innovation at the University of Saskatchewan’s Johnson-Shoyama School of Public Policy and a member of the Council of Canadian Academies expert panel on high-throughput networks for rural and remote Canadians, said rural communities should not adopt the build-it-and-they-will-come attitude.
Broadband requires government and the private sector to work in tandem to serve rural and remote populations well into the future. Faster technology won’t eliminate other challenges, Coates said.
“Technology is only the starting point,” he said during a panel on rural broadband. “Technology gets you out of the starting blocks, but the race is 100 yards down the line… and everybody else is actually about 50 yards ahead of you.”
In a report issued by the expert panel last fall, the academics said incremental approaches to addressing the gap between rural and urban have been unsuccessful and communities without access are cut off from key services. Specific policies and programs are needed for rural and remote regions.
The report noted that faster technology comes with the risk that only those with the resources will be able to take advantage of it.
As well, Coates cited large geographic and ethnic inequalities, with rural and First Nations communities falling way behind.
Affordability is key. Just having access to broadband doesn’t mean people can pay the cost for the service and the devices.
Reliability is another challenge.
“We also suffer from a real problem of the absence of localized services and content,” Coates said.
It’s much easier to get urban and international content than it is to get local information, he said, although some communities do rely on robust Facebook pages or websites to inform residents.
More access comes with other problems, such as social media “and accelerating what I call the problems of smallness,” he said.
Local politics, for example, can be intense and social media make that more disruptive.
“When you have high speed internet capabilities in a region, local businesses can suffer,” he said. “We did discover (during the pandemic) what you can do with online education. We also discovered what you can’t do.”
And while online work means some employees can choose to live in rural areas or small towns, Coates warned competition for jobs can now come from farther away.
Communities have to be ready for the technology and make plans, he said.
There are implications for medicine, retail, education and government services and all sectors have to work together to create the society they want.
“We need a vision for a 21st century rural Canada,” Coates added. “We need a vision for small town development using internet capabilities. We need a plan that essentially says this is the world we want. Otherwise, what’s going to happen is you’re going to get the world the business community and governments, generally, provide to you.”
The federal government has promised 50-10 service across the country. That’s 50 megabits per second upload speed, and 10 Mbps for downloads. It has the Universal Broadband Fund to support that effort.
The expert panel said those speeds are unlikely to be sufficient by 2030.
Several other panelists noted the formula the fund uses is unfair to Saskatchewan because it’s based on population.
Daryl Godfrey, chief technology officer at SaskTel, said it has made a dozen applications to the federal government with no response.
Both Godfrey and Wade Peterson at Access Communications said they are expanding their networks by working with community partners and smaller businesses.