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Rural isolation in a digital world

If farmers have to wait 10 years to catch up on high-speed internet access, will it be too late? No one knows

The internet has become such an integral part of our lives that it’s hard to remember 20 years ago when only 30 per cent of households had access. Life without clear, reliable connectivity in today’s business world is a little like asking a doctor to go back to the days before penicillin or having to get all your music on AM radio.

Yet that’s what is happening in rural Canada today, despite federal budget allotments and declarations that high speed internet be classed “an essential service” by organizations like the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA). Many farmers are left to rely on dial-up service or muddle through limited broadband capacity to download web pages and e-newsletters on their cell phones.

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It’s why 63 per cent of households in rural Canada can’t get access to internet speeds considered standard (50 mega- bits per second (Mbps) download and 10 Mbps upload).

There are signs of improvement on the horizon. In 2016, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), declared broadband internet access as a basic service across the country. Last July, the OFA stated its belief that broadband should be an essential service. That same month, the federal Ministry of Rural Economic Development issued a 12-page document “High-Speed Access for All: Canada’s Connectivity Strategy,” conceding the country faces a “national connectivity gap.”

“Rural Canadians face the daily challenge of slower, less reliable internet access than those in urban centres,” states the document’s overview. “Overwhelmingly, rural remote communities have identified challenges accessing affordable, high-speed internet as the number one issue impeding their economic growth.”

The document also mentions small businesses unable to use Interac debit payments so they’re forced into cash-only transactions, and farmers trying to access global markets using a fax machine.

To help alleviate this gap, the federal government’s Budget 2019 pledged an additional $1.7 billion to an existing commitment of $4.3 billion invested “to connect all Canadians.” That money has been set aside with the goal of connecting all Canadians by 2030. On top of that, there have been provincial commitments. In 2019, for instance, Ontario pledged $315 million over five years for broadband and cellular expansion.

But for every good deed — pledged or otherwise — it seems there’s a step back. Last August, after the CRTC ruled that major telecommunications companies could not raise broadband fees to smaller providers, Bell Canada scaled back its plans for expansion in rural internet service. The corporation cited a loss of more than $100 million due to the limitations, declaring such a move would result in a reduction of roughly 200,000 households from its expansion plans for rural Canada. As of August 19, 2019, Rogers Communications, the other major player in internet access in Canada, stated it was “reviewing all future investment in rural and remote communities” in light of the $140 million it said it would lose because of the CRTC decision.

Still 10 years away

The money pledged by both levels of government is a solid foundation, but the timeline from Ottawa still means a relatively long wait. It raises the question: in today’s digital marketplace, is 10 years too long?

For many, internet access is already an impediment to advancing their business through technologies like precision ag systems. For others, it’s a matter of being able to order parts or conduct internet banking — things they can’t do now, which require taking time out of the workday to complete.

It’s not as though farmers have to hitch-up the horses and drive the wagon to town, but to stop what they’re doing to do their banking, which millions of others can do with a few keystrokes online, is a definite negative.

Adam Ireland is a grower whose family farm is near Teeswater, Ont. He concedes that his digital subscriber line (DSL) internet service is usually reliable and functions at a decent speed, yet he sees several issues facing growers.

The economy in general is driven by data and technical efficiency, and agriculture is no different, he says, yet beyond conventional email and online purchasing, his farm business profits from other online functions.

Adam Ireland.
photo: Supplied

“Group information-share for troubleshooting — I use sites like Agtalk to troubleshoot and repair equipment constantly,” adds Ireland. “I can save thousands in a year by doing so. I have found times where online group support can diagnose an issue faster than a service tech can.”

There are also marketing, logistics, staff management, safety and overall productivity issues that are affected by connection speeds. This is where growers can benefit greatly from more effective internet coverage, yet many of those aspects are part of a technology base that’s 15 years old.

“The amount of real-time machine data that will be shared today and into the near future is astounding,” says Ireland. “We haven’t scratched the surface of that, yet. The real threat to underserved areas is being left behind as robotics increase in use on the farm. Without real-time reporting, they won’t be as effective or won’t operate at all without communication to a main terminal.”

It’s not just today’s impediments that add to the uneasiness, it’s also his ability to compete in the marketplace of tomorrow that concerns Jordan Wallace. As a precision agriculture system specialist with GPS Ontario, he agrees that farmers are hindered by the costs of better internet connectivity.

Jordan Wallace.
photo: Supplied

“As we get working with growers on man- aging that operational data, it makes it very difficult for them to use a cloud-based service that’s accessible everywhere when they don’t have decent internet,” says Wallace, who’s based in North Gower, just south of Ottawa. “It’s one thing to be able to use cloud-based service and manage that farm data to share with your agronomist and email files back and forth. But as we start looking at drone imagery and information, and some other component pieces, it’s very difficult for them to manage.”

There are some smaller carriers like Xplornet and Storm Internet that are expanding their service, but Wallace maintains that much of the struggle for rural areas comes down to cost.

“We have access to cellular data across most of Ontario, at least with one carrier or another, so growers will have the ability to pick one or the other,” says Wallace. “For a large part of Ontario, that’s a pretty easy task. But the data’s very expensive: each SIM card needs another $15 or $20 a month, and you start sharing data around an operation, it adds up.”

There are now conversations taking place with manufacturing groups that will help growers to get that data connectivity right on farm. As more stakeholders become involved in blockchain-based endeavours and discussions around traceability, the need for better connectivity gets more urgent.

“There are a lot of smart sensors coming within agriculture that are going to have large requirements for this data, more than just weather stations,” says Wallace. “Having the ability to see your in-field nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium levels live all of the time, water levels in the fields, drainage control structures — that’s where we’re going to need all of this data.”

As fibre-optics-fed internet becomes more available in certain Ontario hubs, that data availability plateau is going to change rapidly, and Wallace believes it’s coming fast. Companies like PrecisionPlanting, Dawn Equipment and Climate FieldView are leveraging data that’s already available. They’re using consumer-grade products to put information out in the fields for growers to be able to make decisions. Some of those decisions are having an impact on operations very quickly. But it’s still scratching the surface of what’s possible.

It also takes time. In eastern Ontario and the Ottawa Valley, Wallace knows there’s a committed move to install more fibre-optic cable, as is the case with many communities in southern Ontario. A company like Xplornet — and others — continue to push for more access — and once they have a fibre hub established, they can branch out wirelessly.

The challenge, as always, is return on investment. If a company is putting $100 million into infrastructure, it’ll be paid off quicker with a million subscribers paying $40 per month compared to just 2,000.

“It comes down to explaining some of the processes to get growers thinking about what they could do and where they could go if they had better connectivity,” says Wallace.

He acknowledges that steps are being taken, but there’s still the threat that farmers — and rural Canada — are being left behind. Some of that blind spot comes from those in populated areas who take fast, efficient and low-cost internet access for granted.

Too much at stake

Ireland has found dealing with providers to be equally frustrating, noting that current suppliers lack the incentive to provide the service to less densely populated areas. A couple of years ago, the town closest to his farm installed fibre-optic cable yet his local supplier told him that for rural subscribers there’d be no change. He then asked about connecting via an overland tower system to their fibre line in town. Again, there was no interest in exploring that option.

“My takeaway is that suppliers don’t have a lot of incentive to go the last mile and connect rural customers,” says Ireland. “There doesn’t even seem to be an interest in having the discussion.”

He wonders about creating co-operative agreements to help provide needed bandwidth in rural areas, largely because he doesn’t see governments having enough understanding of the urgency to get the job done.

“Here in 2020, I wonder how internet speed is still such a huge issue in a developed country like Canada,” he says. “We’ve been talking about it for a decade and while improvements have been made, we’re going backward, not forward. The amount of gigabit data that needs to move is going to increase exponentially in the coming years. We in rural Canada need to get ahead of this issue if we want to continue to promote a thriving rural economy.”

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