Editorial: Internet access needs to be rural development priority

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The time at home because of COVID-19 has laid bare the deficiency of rural internet.

In a world where we all needed good connectivity, many didn’t have it.

Those who had it found it slowed down, according to OpenMedia, an internet watch organization. Rural internet has slowed down since the pandemic hit, compared to urban connectivity that already has many times the digital download speed.

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Politicians and business leaders have noticed. If the door is opened, it’s time to wedge it open permanently.

There are politicians making the right noises. The province recently re-announced its $150 million program to expand rural internet.

The federal government will shortly be accepting applications for its rural internet program, valued at about $1 billion.

The goal is to have 95 per cent of Canadians with at least 50 megabits per second download speed by 2026.

Government programs with big budgets have a sad history of overspending and underperformance. That’s my worry with the grand rural internetificiation project.

What bugs me is that we’ve managed to spread important services to every household in the country before with both the electrification of Canada as well as the running of phone lines to everyone across the country.

The lines got to homes in rural areas and urban centres, although it took a while.

There were two different models used in electricity and telephony.

The growth of electricity was regional and based on local initiative. It’s only more recently that local electricity utilities have been sold to Hydro One.

The phone system was, in most of the country, constructed under a monopoly by either government-owned companies or Bell Canada.

The billions of dollars riding on moving high-speed internet to the rest of the country are enticing for companies in the business. The government will be tempted to give the money to larger players due to the efficiency of that process.

Xplornet, which has tried for years to supply rural internet through satellite, continues to be focused on rural, and has a new owner in New York-based Stonepeak Infrastructure Partners, so it will have access to the capital needed to continue to compete.

However, there needs to be significant local input and preferably local rollout of high speed internet. The best cases today of efficient and quick fibre provision are found in smaller companies, often co-operatives and driven by local needs. They are getting the job done today, compared to some of the larger players who continue to move slowly. Bell Canada recently announced it was accelerating its rural internet project.

Smaller companies, who have spent the last 10 to 15 years providing service to rural areas should also have a kick at the funds. They’ve put in the time, helping to bring at least a small level of internet access to rural areas.

I recently upgraded my internet access to the highest available, but that’s 25 mbps, half of the government suggested download speed. But 25 mbps will still allow us to do most of what we need to do. Others are stuck at three mbps download, if they can get it.

Fibre lines are available two concessions east and a concession to the west of where I live, but the cooperatives that have installed them say they are waiting on more government funding, and aren’t suggesting that fibre will ever come down roads that aren’t heading to a larger population centre.

Fibre optic cable should be the top priority for every internet installation. It’s the backbone that we need and it can carry data hundreds of times faster than most point to point systems.

Satellite internet is another fast-emerging option, although the newest generation of satellites will be hampered by the fact the public could avoid satellite internet unless it’s the last option. That’s because satellite internet options have been of poor quality, with slow speeds and unstable signal.

Serial entrepreneur Elon Musk is in the process of launching a constellation of small satellites that will circle the Earth and provide up to 600 mbps service. Sixty satellites were launched in January and four more launches will be required to provide service across North America. However, parts of Canada and the U.S. could see the system tested by the end of 2020.

The need to get Canadians equal access to internet has never been more stark. It’s time to get it done.

About the author

Editor

John Greig

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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