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Editor’s Column: The lowdown on rural Internet access

satellite dish on a rooftop

Oh the irony.

I thought I’d do a little research before I wrote about Internet access in rural Canada. So I turned to the Internet, typed in some likely search terms and… waited. Then I waited some more.

I live on a farm in southeast Saskatchewan. Although oil activity has fallen off drastically in the past year, there’s still plenty of business out here. Oil battery sites, some drilling and of course, farming. But even living near all of these businesses doesn’t guarantee reliable high-speed Internet on our farm.

We don’t have Internet access through wired-in cables like most city people. We use a small dish on our roof to pick up signals from a tower five miles away. Some days it works great and we have “pretty good” Internet access. When that’s not working, we can use the data connections on our phone to access the Internet. But if I have a big file to download, like a map update for our Garmin, I sometimes resort to making the 100-km round trip drive to the library in Weyburn, or I’ll wait until I’m visiting my parents in Saskatoon (sort of like dragging laundry home when I was in university).

We are getting by. For now. But we certainly don’t have the reliable Internet service that would let us do things other Canadians are doing. Cutting off our TV subscription and watching TV online or using our Internet connection to replace our landline phone are not options for us.

This morning, a chemical company rep phoned my husband. She offered him a deal. If he would watch their 20-minute video online to learn about their new herbicide, they’d send him a gift and enter him in a draw. “I don’t think I can this morning,” he said. Our connection was having a slow day. “I’ve been calling farmers from across Canada,” she said. “And you won’t believe how many are saying the exact same thing!”

The options

If I lived in Estevan or Weyburn, SaskTel (Saskatchewan’s Crown Corporation phone provider) would offer me their “Ultra high-speed Internet,” with download speeds of up to 25 megabytes per second. This would be plenty fast. I could download Garmin maps and more commodity marketing information than we could read. If he was allowed, our son would be able to play online video games with his friends from school.

If I lived in Regina or Saskatoon, I could subscribe to SaskTel’s infiNET, with the “blazing speed,” as they call it, of 260 Mbps. The highest-end plan would cost $140 per month, but even $80 per month would give me 50 Mbps.

The problem with farming is that, more often than not, you wind up living on a farm. Out here, a couple of companies offer access to Internet signals from nearby towers. The highest-end commercial package advertised by our provider costs about the same as infiNET’s blazing speed, $140/month. But instead of infiNET’s 260 Mbps, the advertised top speed out here is two Mbps. That’s right. Two. Less than one per cent of the top urban speed, for the same price.

There is one more option. One company will put a satellite dish on my roof, then send the signal directly from my roof to a satellite — no tower necessary. This company will sell me a package with download speeds of five or even 10 Mbps. Unfortunately, they reserve these top download speeds for customers watching videos through online services like Netflix or YouTube. If you want to download other files, like the draft pages of Grainews our production guy, Steve, in Winnipeg, sends me, this company limits the top download speed during daytime hours to 300 kilobytes per second (that’s 0.3 Mbps).

It’s disheartening to see this sad selection of options at a time when the Internet is becoming a standard part of the landscape. The frontpage of the federal CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) website says this: “It is now possible to use the Internet to watch TV and make phone calls. You can even call 9-1-1.” Well, it might be possible for some.

Oh, the whining

I know some of you are mumbling things like, “She should find something important to complain about,” or, “Is she really that desperate to watch Netflix?”

In self-defence, I give you four reasons why this is an important rural issue:

  1. We’re trying to do business. I’m sure nobody would disagree that the Internet is critical to farm businesses. Never mind watching TV — grain marketing information, weather forecasts, banking information and crop insurance program administration is all online.
  2. Give us the news. Many people are getting their news from the Internet these days. Everyone loves a video. Our own machinery editor, Scott Garvey, makes all kinds of great videos for our E-quip website (online at Don’t tell Scott, but I often can’t watch them. It’s just too frustrating for me to wait for the videos to download.
  3. We want to keep up with the Jones. While I was a teenager, large-dish satellite TV was a new thing, and I was thrilled to watch MTV, right there in our living room in the middle of the Prairies! These days, kids are watching videos on YouTube. Now they want to use the Internet to play video games online. For isolated rural kids that don’t have friends within winter walking distance, this can be a nice way to socialize. If your connection can’t keep up, your kid can’t play. I don’t think it will be much fun explaining that on a blizzard-y Sunday afternoon, when my kid’s old enough for this sort of thing. (I know. “Kids should be outside doing farm things.” But I’m leaving this reason on my list anyway.)
  4. The world is getting ahead of us. As web developers gain access to faster and faster Internet speeds, they’ll use them. They’ll build more exciting web pages with more videos and faster-moving graphics. Why not? But will we even be able to look at those pages with our farm-style connections?

Remember when we first had dial-up Internet access? Now you need speeds higher than that to access many of the websites where you do business. Just when we caught up and got access to two Mbps Internet with satellites and towers, the rest of the world has moved to something more than 10 times faster.

What can I do?

I wish I knew. The CRTC has been doing a survey on Internet availability, but that finished at the end of February. They are also holding a public consultation in Quebec in April. It’s clear that the CRTC is aware of the problem, but whether it has the power, funds or desire to fix the problem for people like you and me is another question.

You could try getting in touch with a provincial or federal politician, and explaining the situation to them. Let’s hope this is more productive for you than it was for me.

I’m sure columns just like this were written in the past when other utilities were still new. There were probably sentences like, “How will I keep my son at home on the farm when the bright lights of electricity are shining in town?” Or, “How can a farmer get the latest wheat prices if we can’t afford to install a telephone?” Eventually, even the most remote farms got access to power and phones.

There’s no reason to believe history won’t repeat itself and make this column completely irrelevant in 10 years. But getting from here to there will likely involve some lobbying, some frustration and drinking several cups of coffee while we wait for files to download.

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