Lack of rural internet and cellular connectivity jeopardizing growth of agriculture industry

This editorial was first published on Breaking the Box blog

During September, I spent almost every day in either a combine or sprayer. Like many farmers during harvest, I basically ran the business from my phone — assigning work orders, purchasing inputs, marketing grain, and making capital decisions.

On a good day, and I stress a good day, I’d only drop three calls or wait 10 minutes for my data to load. On a bad day, I basically can’t complete a phone conversation with anyone and am completely out of touch with what’s happening back at the yard. The cellular service in and around our farm near Moosomin, Sask., is spotty and unreliable. I could use a few choice words to describe the situation, but I’ll leave it at “frustrating.”

The pandemic and the Roger’s outage this summer have highlighted the critical need for better access to what I would deem an essential service in today’s inter-connected world.

The digital divide

We’re not alone. Much of rural Saskatchewan, and rural Canada for that matter, is underserved by broadband internet and cell service on a reliable and affordable basis. We are increasingly relying on digital technology to run our farms. Precision ag, especially during seeding and harvest, relies on weather-resistant and timely access to data.

Even if you don’t run a business, you’re still trying to do banking, book travel, study, help kids with homework, and stream Netflix. Basically, rural people are trying to live the same quality of life as those in the cities.

A few years ago, HGV turned to Starlink in a few of our yards, the high-speed satellite internet provider operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX to help solve part of the problem. For about $140/month (plus a one-time hardware cost of several hundred dollars) I can get lightning-fast data speed. While there are frequent short interruptions, overall it’s been a positive experience that will only get better as more satellites are launched and coverage improves.

But, what if you can’t afford Starlink? Access to the internet is expensive and that doesn’t solve the problem of poor cellular service. In fact, Canada has some of the highest internet provider costs in the world. Telecoms won’t invest if they don’t see a return and the population in rural Canada is just too small.

In my opinion, there’s been a lack of competition, investment, and good policy. We’ve welcomed and encouraged the use of ag tech, but we haven’t built the infrastructure to maximize its full potential in agriculture. There’s no way farms can attract young bright talent if we can’t promise them a tech-savvy and “connected” farm.

My colleague, Evan, compares it to electric cars. We’re being encouraged to drive electric cars but don’t yet have the system in place to charge the batteries. Just days after approving a plan to ban gasoline automobiles, California asked residents not to charge their batteries for fear of draining the state’s power supply amidst a heat wave.

Work in progress

In February, the federal government announced $6.6 million in funding to bring internet to rural communities in our province. Moosomin wasn’t one of them, but I realize it’s a process. It’s part of a larger federal plan to bring internet access to 98 per cent of the country by 2026 and 100 per cent by 2030. Who has time to wait?

There are daily metrics, decisions, and conversations that need to be had when you’re running a business.

I don’t want to see internet access turned into a federal utility – I don’t think government intervention is the answer here. But I do think solutions lie in collaborations between public and private telecom companies. And I am a strong believer in competition, which naturally drives better quality and, hopefully, lower prices. I want to see more rural internet providers and startups offering affordable options.

And, in the meantime, we’ll need to rely on our friend, Elon Musk, but I sure wish we had a made-in-Canada solution.