Rural internet needs focused approach: APAS


Sask. farm group says buildings owned by the province and municipalities could be used to deploy better service

The Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan has issued 43 recommendations to improve broadband and cellular service.

Chief among them is a more focused approach to providing better service in rural and remote areas.

The APAS Rural Connectivity Task Force studied the issue for several months. They talked to providers and users and offered an internet speed test to see if customers were getting the speeds that providers promised.

APAS vice-president and task force member Ian Boxall of Tisdale said a survey conducted before the task force began its work found that more than 60 percent of respondents were dissatisfied. The service is unreliable and it was even before the COVID-19 pandemic placed additional demands on it.

“This is an economic issue,” he said. “We require this internet and cellphone service for data management on our farm, for field records, for agronomy, for all of those aspects of our business. Equipment maintenance is now … done by internet and cellphone. This is not a luxury.”

Paige Stewart, a task force member from Fillmore, said working an off-farm job but on the farm is challenging and frustrating because of spotty connections.

“Sometimes we can’t download what we need to download to our tractor to do a variable rate technology, which if you overlay that with some of the other focuses like carbon footprint, we are trying to do better and we can’t do it because of the technology limitations,” she said.

The recommendations are aimed at governments and providers and range from recommending governments save money by using a “dig once” policy to co-ordinate utility and infrastructure upgrades to changing competition policies to fit smaller markets.

The task force final report says buildings owned by the province and municipalities could be used to deploy better service.

It notes that a single agency within the federal government would help co-ordinate the spending of the $7 billion that Ottawa has promised to address the lack of service and meet its goal of 50 megabits per second downloads and 10 mbps uploads as a minimum for all users.

“I don’t see currently under the structure that is laid out how that is possible,” Boxall said.

The report said the near monopoly of large providers has resulted in high prices and poor service for Canadians when compared to others. It recommends reduced spectrum fees for new entrants and smaller providers.

“Unfortunately, throwing money at the problem will not be enough if the funds are not supported by effective policy,” the report said. “This is especially true in rural and remote areas, where there is often no sustainable business case to be made for connecting communities without public investments or incentives.”

In Saskatchewan, the presence of a crown corporation should ensure that internet and cell service are basic public goods, Boxall said.

He drew a parallel with the implementation of full provincial telephone service last century when local companies established the service that eventually became province-wide.

“I think we need to go back and pressure them that maybe they’re only going to gain 100 customers going out in this direction from a major centre but there is some public good in the fact that they are a crown corporation owned by this province and the citizens in this province deserve this level of service,” Boxall said. “If you can’t do it, SaskTel, then figure out how you’re going to get it done with partners.”

Stewart said more resources are going to be required than currently exist to justify the investment in rural Saskatchewan because of its sparse population. She said rural residents must continue to highlight why it’s important that providers establish in those areas.

Boxall added that governments have poured a lot of money into agricultural technology but farmers can’t always take advantage of it because they don’t have the service to do so.

Stewart also said that building the broadband infrastructure in rural Saskatchewan could bring economic spinoffs and job creation that the areas need.

The full report can be found here.