COVID-19 has highlighted the disparity between rural and urban Saskatchewan in available internet service providers and digital bandwidth.
At a time when it matters most, internet connections have been slower and unreliable in rural areas (or non-existent), and this has had a negative effect on all our rural services. Health, education, business and public services all depend on connectivity. And our families do too.
Health care during the pandemic is being delivered by telehealth links. Appointments with specialists are being cancelled and replaced by telephone or by video-conferencing on various online platforms. These are proving to be effective. Unfortunately, many rural and northern residents do not have the bandwidth they need to access these health services.
In education, classroom instruction has been suspended and is being delivered through remote/distant learning. However, for parents and university students in rural areas to download educational materials and view supplemental resources, they require high-speed internet.
Without it, our rural, Indigenous and northern students lack equal access to educators and online supports. They are left behind. As one rural high school student said recently: “Everything is online right now, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. People are relying more heavily on things being done online, and it seems really like no one is thinking about the people and families who don’t have access to that.”
Many businesses rely on the internet. Rural businesses are at a disadvantage when their connectivity is both unreliable and under capacity. If we want to support, retain and attract businesses in rural communities, let’s recognize that they need reliable high-speed internet every day, but especially during crisis situations.
During the coronavirus pandemic, online ordering and curb-side pickup are the new normal. When we finally get through it, we have to ensure that our economic recovery includes providing the connectivity that rural businesses need.
Even at the best of times, public services rely on communication and require consistent, affordable high-speed internet and cellular services. The response to COVID-19 has required most of these offices to close and people to work from home, but the rural digital network is not capable of meeting this demand. Rural people should not have to hold meetings by holding cellphones next to speakers and microphones in order to participate in virtual meetings.
Finally, connectivity is essential for our social well-being. Seniors in care homes and other vulnerable members of society need to be connected to family and friends. During quarantines and lockdowns, this means using social media, but inadequate bandwidth makes this impossible in many rural areas. Social distancing has resulted in social isolation for family members who have inadequate internet service or none at all. This is unfair.
For all of these reasons, the time has come for us to declare rural connectivity an essential service. There is precedent for this. In 1949, the CCF (NDP) created a crown corporation, Saskatchewan Power, with a mandate to provide electricity to every home in the province. Over the next decade, SaskPower brought electricity to 66,000 farms in rural Saskatchewan.
Much like rural electrification in the 1950s, rural connectivity is less profitable for private business due to lower population density in rural areas. Our provincial government needs to accept this responsibility. SaskTel, the crown corporation responsible for delivering telephone and internet services, should be given a mandate to provide connectivity as an essential service.
SaskTel should ensure that equal and affordable cellular and internet services are made available to all rural, Indigenous and northern communities.
It’s time to bring rural internet services into the 21st century.
Leonard Dales is chair of the Saskatchewan NDP’s agriculture and rural life committee.