Internet is an essential service like electricity, OFA says
OTTAWA — After one-year with pandemic restrictions and a rapidly increasing need for online access, reliable internet service should now be deemed an essential service, says former Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Keith Currie.
“People have adapted to working from home, learning from home, delivering e-commerce platforms from home and even participating in recreational activities from home,” said Currie in an OFA commentary. “The world has changed drastically to rely on virtual platforms that require reliable internet. For those with a strong connection, adapting to virtual platforms was a relatively seamless transition with the biggest challenge being how to navigate and understand ZOOM, Microsoft Teams, Google Classroom or some other platform. However, many living in rural communities with limited or no access to reliable internet, have faced significant challenges when logging on to the virtual world.”
He added that the OFA “believes access to fast, reliable and affordable internet is a necessity in our modern world and needs to be considered an essential service. Much like electrification in Ontario over 80 years ago, broadband expansion must be a prioritized and rapid process. OFA has advocated for the expansion of rural broadband for years.”
It seems governments have listened. Rogers Communications announced on March 19 that it was awarded a more than $150 million contract (split largely between the provincial and federal governments) to close dead areas in cell phone service in Eastern Ontario by 2025.
It’s not a moment too soon. Farm groups hope internet service is next. “Agriculture has rapidly evolved to embrace new technologies,” Currie said. “The implementation of technology such as robotics, sensors and GPS mapping require reliable connectivity to be successful. Rural demand for bandwidth is quickly outpacing the expansion of broadband infrastructure as farmers continue to increase the use of digital technology.”
He added that farmers need more than just to be able to connect to the internet, “Our members need speed, reliability and bandwidth that provides the ability to carry high loads of data to remain competitive in the digital world.”
OFA’s 2020 survey reflects the current frustration. The survey found that 62% of participants say internet outages are causing an inability to conduct normal business activities. Farmers who require stable internet to run their businesses have more than doubled in five years.
Additionally, 53% of survey participants have increased the amount of digital technologies on their farm. Precision agriculture also relies on accessibility to fast, reliable broadband internet but 57% of survey participants admit unreliable connectivity has resulted in a delay or rejection of investment in precision technologies, Currie said.
“For many farmers, the primary internet options available in rural areas do not provide a stable enough connection,” Currie added. “We are lucky to have a stable connection on our farm in Collingwood, but an increase in heavy winds or snowfall can interfere with connectivity. We are also paying a substantial fare for an unreliable connection.”
With limited options, the customer is at the mercy of the service provider when it comes to cost and delivery, Currie noted. The survey also found that 70% of survey participants said they believe they are not getting sufficient value from internet providers. In fact, 75% of respondents indicated they are unsatisfied with options and accessibility in their area.
“As entrepreneurs, we can understand providers not wanting to implement more infrastructure on their own dime, especially, when it does not add to their bottom line,” Currie concluded. “Therefore, OFA continues to lobby both the federal and provincial governments to invest in expanded broadband for all rural, northern and remote communities.”