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ONLINE ASPIRATIONS

CONNECTING RURAL ALBERTA TO A HIGH-SPEED FUTURE

BY CULLEN BIRD

Shane DeBock knows the frustration of poor internet service. He deals with it constantly on his family farm a half-hour drive west of Barrhead. While his wireless internet service is good enough for checking market prices, he still has to go online late at night or early in the morning to download large files.

DeBock, who is the Alberta Barley region five director-at-large, said that the greatest consequence of his unreliable internet access is a reluctance to use wireless-dependent farming technology. “I would guess that I’m probably missing out on some things, because I don’t bother with the technology because I know it won’t work here,” he said. 

For example, he can’t use RTK steering, a technology that enhances GPS farming systems.

Provincial governments across the country are promising millions in funding to provide reliable internet service to underserved Canadians including farmers such as DeBock. Ahead of only Italy among G7 nations, Canada now ranks 29th on the International Telecommunications Union’s ICT Development Index, which measures the performance of global communications technologies by country.

By 2021, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) expects 90 per cent of Canadians to have access to download speeds of 50 megabytes per second (mbps) and upload speeds of 10 mbps.

To help achieve this goal, the CRTC has created the $750 million Broadband Fund for projects that will improve internet access for remote and rural communities. The CRTC announced in 2018 that the fund will complement private- and public-sector initiatives, with a call for applications to go out this year. 

This is in addition to $500 million in federal funding dedicated to improving rural and remote internet access through Connect to Innovate. This program aims to assist 300 communities by 2021. So far, 32 Alberta communities have received a total of $20.9 million through the program, with $15.9 million coming directly from the program and $5 million from other contributors.

In its 2019 budget, the federal government established a national target calling for 95 per cent of Canadian homes and businesses to have access to 50/10 mbps by 2026. By 2030, the goal is for 100 per cent of Canadians to have access to this service level. To achieve this target, the 2019 budget promised $1.7 billion over 13 years to the Connect to Innovate program.

Alberta has good coverage, said Charles Hepler, associate professor of computing at Mount Royal University. However, one survey suggests that Alberta’s internet service quality is middling. Alberta’s download speeds rank sixth out of the 10 provinces in the Canadian Internet Registration Authority’s 2017 findings, based on responses from its voluntary internet performance survey. 

According to a 2018 Taylor Warwick Consulting survey completed by Alberta’s municipalities, more than 83 per cent of all Albertans have access to internet service options providing 50/10 mbps. However, more than 85 per cent of Alberta’s communities do not have such service access, underscoring the rural-urban internet access divide.

Using GPS and accessing market data doesn’t require much internet bandwidth, Hepler said. However, the growing popularity of video conferencing and streaming requires greater download and upload speeds. “People very regularly communicate with video calls,” he said.

The province’s last high-profile project aimed at improving rural internet access was the creation of the Alberta SuperNet, a fibre optic broadband “internet highway” completed in 2005. The SuperNet linked community hubs and important infrastructure to the system but did not focus on so-called “last mile” connections to homes and small businesses.

“They connected the post office and the supermarket,” said Lynn Jacobson, president of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture. “They didn’t let anyone else on.” As a result, rural residents “sort of forgot” about the SuperNet, he said.

The federal government’s 2019 budget promises the launch of the Universal Broadband Fund that will extend “backbone” infrastructure to difficult-to-reach communities. The Fund may also support those “last-mile” connections.

“They will never, ever put fibre optic out to our farms.”
— Lynn Jacobson

At his home 50 kilometres northeast of Lethbridge, Jacobson said he gets about six mbps of download and one to two mbps of upload. At peak usage times, his connection speed usually drops even lower. It’s an unpleasant reality given farming operations are becoming more and more dependent on wireless access when it comes to technology. “From our GPS systems, all the way down to yield mapping, it seems to be tied into the internet as it goes forward,” he said.

Autonomous farming equipment is another emerging technology that will require farmers to have better, faster internet service. “It’s starting on a small scale now,” he said.

As the technology has developed it is being considered for use in seeding, weeding, spraying and other farm tasks, he said. Such wide adoption of this equipment will be dependent on reliable internet access. 

“It is coming. It’s the new face of agriculture,” he added. “It solves some labour problems for us.”

While federal funding has been committed to improving wireless internet access, the province has not come forward with new initiatives in 2019. The previous NDP government had promised the release of its Provincial Broadband Strategy before the spring 2019 election. No plan was made public, however, and as of July the new UCP government had not updated the status of the plan.

A Service Alberta strategy update published in September 2018 recommended the provincial government set measurable internet access targets and work to close the urban-rural internet access divide. A major impediment to doing so will likely be affordability, Jacobson said. Current prices for high-speed internet plans in his area range from about $80 to $90, he said. Attracting more internet service providers to Alberta may create more competition and drive down prices, he added.

Funding internet infrastructure such as fibre optic networks doesn’t solve the underlying problem for small rural communities and outlying farms, said Jacobson. The population density in these areas is too low to make such projects economical. “They will never, ever put fibre optic out to our farms,” he said. 

Satellite coverage could be an alternative option to provide coverage for wide rural areas. Part of the proposed Universal Broadband Fund is a plan to secure and utilize a low Earth orbit satellite service. Such technology can receive and transmit data with faster response times than traditional high-orbit satellite service.

“The federal and provincial governments need to work together as they go forward,” said Jacobson about improving rural internet service. “No one is going to be able to do this on their own.”  

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