The Internet is about to get faster.
This winter Google announced a plan to build fiberoptic networks 100 times faster than current systems. While excited U. S. mayors went to great lengths to convince Google to use their cities as sample sites, Prairie farmers began to worry. If higher-speed connections bring sweeping change to the Internet, will rural users be left in the dust behind the technological broom?
It’s hard to doubt that the trend for future Internet access will be “faster.” Users of Google’s new networks will be able to download information at a rate of one gigabit per second (that’s one thousand megabits, or one million kilobits). If you’re still accessing the World Wide Web through a standard modem, your maximum speed is 56 kilobits per second.
fifty-six kilobits per second is simply not fast enough anymore. If you live in a Saskatchewan city and use SaskTel’s premium service, you could download up to 25 megabits per second. This is fast, but not Google-fast. Out on the farm, Xplornet’s satellite service offers a maximum download speed of 1.5 megabits per second. For now, this is fast enough.
In the early days of dial-up, high speed didn’t seem necessary; we were awed by the new tool. Instead of driving to town to buy a newspaper or look something up at the library, we had the same information as city people, without leaving our farms. Up-to-the-minute commodity prices and current production research proved to be invaluable.
But soon our dial-up connections were no longer enough. When the world moved on to faster connections, website developers upgraded their sites. They added new eye-catching graphics and new codes until the sites we’d come to rely on took an excruciatingly long time to load. We needed higher speed.
Farmers have options, but not the same options as city dwellers. The April 3 Globe and Mail ran a feature on Canada’s “digital divide,” lamenting the lack of rural high speed and discussing the link between economic development and Internet access. The article featured a man from Olds, Alta., whose online business requires a fast connection. People living on farms or remote acreages can only daydream about the Internet services available in a community the size of Olds.
Rural residents have accepted the fact that our high speed Internet options are costly and not ideal. We’ve climbed on our roofs to install satellites, trimmed our caraganas to establish a line of sight to a nearby tower, and bought AirCards for our teenagers’ laptops.
In most cases, the solutions are great for simple downloads, email, and ordinary websites. But our connections aren’t always reliable, or quite as fast as we’d like them to be. Our children can Skype with their grandparents, but planning a video conference for an important business meeting would be a risk. New software that stores files in a central location is not practical.
Our situation is workable, although not ideal. For now.
But by the end of the year, the 500,000 Americans with access to Google’s network will be able to download a high-definition movie in less than five minutes. Not being able to bootleg “Avatar” during a coffee break won’t devastate our farms, but Internet developers are not likely going to be content to just do the same things a bit faster. Even Google doesn’t know what kind of new applications and uses will be created by programmers taking advantage of the new speed.
Will rural users have access to the benefits of a faster Internet? When you live 20 miles from the nearest mail delivery, it’s unlikely to ever be cost effective to run a fibre-optic cable to your yard. When the web adapts to a higher speed, will technology allow farmers to maintain the benefits we have now?
SaskTel’s Michelle Englot says they are “watching what’s going on in other jurisdictions,” and that, as technology changes they’ll offer new products. When asked if there is any possibility that farmers will be able to keep up with urban businesspeople in the future, Englot holds out some hope. “I wouldn’t say that it’s against all odds. Look at how far we’ve come in terms of technology.”
She’s right. In the past decade we’ve gone from phoning the elevator for canola prices to using the Internet to check prices around the world. We can access our bank accounts online and share files with business contacts instantly. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that we’re able to stay connected to the rest of the world 10 years from now.
Leeann Minogue is a farmer, mother and playwright from Griffin, Sask.