Better broadband would help Sask.

Access to high speed internet is an important and necessary aspect of our personal and business lives.

Unfortunately, not all Saskatchewan residents have consistent access to even the minimum levels of service mandated by the CRTC.

This gap in service puts Saskatchewan at a significant disadvantage.

Rural areas, in particular rural residents and businesses outside of urban centres, are disproportionately affected by poor broadband access. It is more than a matter of geography, low population density and distance from towers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the importance of consistent, reliable internet and the negative impact that lack of access can create. When schools were closed and businesses scrambled to support employees with the ability to work from home, many families in rural areas struggled to access the technology they needed at a reasonable cost, if at all.

Even those with access to high speed internet were and remain affected as the new much-higher demand results in poor reliability during regular work hours. With so many people trying to access the service at the same time, rural households often turn to late evening and early morning hours to get the service they need to work or study.

Imagine how challenging it is for those without even that poor or limited access.

Many of us don’t necessarily differentiate high speed internet from cellular data. We just want to have access to the internet when we need it.

The health, safety and well-being of many rural residents depends on reliable broadband and cellular data connectivity.

In addition to an increasing demand for technology from rural-based businesses, which includes industries and agricultural producers, many rural women have joined or would like to supplement family income with home-based businesses, which require reliable internet access. Without access, business opportunities disappear.

As people try to work and access health care and education from home, the inability to do so will continue to result in hardship for those in underserved rural and remote areas.

Even though the CRTC deemed broadband internet a basic telecommunications service in 2016, there are still many rural and remote areas and First Nations communities in Saskatchewan that are significantly underserved.

Focus and investment is needed for the CRTC to meet its basic service objectives and to ensure internet service is available to and affordable for all.

The province of Saskatchewan could make meaningful impact by formally recognizing internet and cellphone connectivity as an essential service for residents and industry and prioritize the establishment of reliable broadband in these areas.

Recent information provided on the CRTC website indicates that broadband coverage at the minimum level to 50/10 Mbps is found in only 40.8 percent of rural communities across Canada.

This means there is more work to be done at the federal level as well. Initiatives like improved coverage mapping, using service reliability in addition to service availability as a measurement, and dedicated funding allocations for rural service, which considers the unique needs of each province, will go a long way to bridging the digital divide.

A heightened focus and commitment to eliminating the disparity in internet service across the province is critical to supporting the technology needed to allow the delivery of government services such as health care, education and social support.

Addressing this significant disadvantage will reverse current severe restrictions on rural, remote and northern residents and support the development and growth of investment opportunities in these areas.

Broadband connectivity isn’t just a rural problem; it affects the entire province.

Carmen Sterling is the former reeve of the Rural Municipality of Weyburn in southeastern Saskatchewan. This article was originally published on the Women for Saskatchewan website.

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