Rural internet vital

How is your internet speed? If you live in rural Canada, almost half of you will say it’s not very good and about 10 percent will say “what high speed?”

It’s a dismal situation in this modern age when connectivity is vital.

Internet connection is integral to business, education and health care in Canada. That includes the parts of Canada beyond the urban centres where it is cheap to deliver and where companies can command premiums for service.

Canadian prices for internet and cellular services are among the highest in the G7 nations: much higher than France, the United Kingdom and Italy, according to last month’s Canadian Radio and Telecommunications report on the subject. Even modest rates of connection, at 25 megabytes per second incoming and seven outgoing, cost 20 percent more in Canada.

For mobile internet access, Canadians pay more than nearly any country: five times as much as Italy, twice as much as Germany and three times more than the United Kingdom and France.

Yet those high prices and resulting income for internet and mobile providers still haven’t resulted in affordable rural internet and in some cases any internet at all for large parts of this vast nation. Instead they reap a profitable harvest from urban dwellers where margins are more easily made.

We wish for better, for all rural dwellers. As the saying goes, if wishes were horses, beggars could ride — and if government promises were bandwidth, then farmers, fishers, miners, pumpers and lumberjacks could stream, rural doctors could consult and out-of-town children could study.

Since the early 2000s, government after government, federal and provincial, have trotted out their best imaginings of fully connected jurisdictions. There have been promises of hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment for rural broadband.

Ahead of the 2008 federal election, Stephen Harper announced a five-year, $100 million annual investment in rural Canada that would be matched by internet providers who ventured into the wilds of the nation.

After the election it became a budget announcement of $225 million spread over three years to develop a strategy to expand access by 2014.

Year after year the promises kept coming.

Still, less than 40 percent of rural Canadians with internet connections have download speeds of 50 megabytes per second or more, enough to stream a lecture or watch a medical procedure. More than 97 percent of urban dwellers have that speed or higher.

Last year, also ahead of an election, the governing Liberals shifted their investment promises to enhancement of existing networks to expand rural service. Having learned from their own experience and that of their predecessors, they cleverly didn’t include any service benchmarks in their aspirational statements.

They did tag the project with an overall price of $6 billion, with a goal of sea to sea to sea connectivity for every household by 2030.

Rural Canada is responsible for more than one third of the nation’s economy. The work of rural Canadians has become highly dependent on communications technology so investments in connectivity pay sizable dividends for the nation.

Among the Liberal government’s recent initiatives was the creation of a Rural Economic Development ministry and a plan to boost agricultural exports to $70 billion annually. Those two things should have ensured that rural internet provision became a reality in short order. Yet progress remains slower than downloading a federal budget document on a farm in Saskatchewan.

The feds might need to pry some of the broadband providers’ profits from their high-priced urban operations to help build out rural service. And governments will need to subsidize rural infrastructure. There is no getting around that.

There has never been doubt about the importance of rural internet, but the pandemic has certainly emphasized the need as people worked from home, schooled their children and relied even more heavily on electronic communication.

It is in the interests of all Canadians, city and country, that the nation’s connections are improved, and soon.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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