By Connor Lynch
PETROLIA — Four years after the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission ruled that download speeds of 50 MBps and upload speeds of 10 MBps were a prerequisite to participate in modern society, many farms have been left behind. Estimates at the time were that around 2 million households, mostly in rural areas, were left out of the high-speed loop. An Ontario Federation of Agriculture survey in March of over 350 members found three-quarters said they couldn’t operate their businesses as usual amid COVID-19 because of poor internet service. “Survey respondents also noted the high cost of rural internet, including overage charges or lack of internet providers, that restricts their ability to work and conduct business,” according to an OFA commentary.
Petrolia-area farmer and Lambton County councillor Kevin Marriott said pushing for better service remains a county priority. In his region, there are many areas with bad service or none. “We were lucky enough to get a few projects under that grant system. But there’ll be a lot of holes yet in the county.”
What service he has is enough to get by with. But he knows he’d be able to do more with his farm business with better service. The kicker is that he knows he’s paying close to what city people pay for better service as well. “So there is an expense to running your farm even with a lower-than-ideal speed.”
In Ontario, the government has backed service improvements, offering up funding to incentivize service providers to offer better service in rural areas. The most recent carrot, announced just last month, was a $150 million program available to telecoms and other agencies in areas with internet speeds slower than the national standard.
Crop farmer Marcel Meyer has long been an advocate of better rural internet. Just last month, he said, he was reading an article from the 1920s about how Toronto people were upset at having to fund hydro-electricity in rural areas. It’s hard to imagine anyone living without hydro today, and in Meyer’s mind, there’s no difference between having hydro and having halfway-decent internet. “It is paramount to ag being productive, being a business. As big a difference as hydro (was) back in the day.”
The issue has been highlighted with COVID-19 lockdowns pushing many more people to work from home, he said. “In general terms business is done by the internet.”
What frustrates Meyer is that all the initiatives and investments seem to have born little fruit.
For Lambton County cash cropper Joe Kerr, a recent boost has been a blessing, if not a godsend. “I’m not sure I’d recognize high-speed if I had it.” It’s not cheap, at $90/month, but that’s the difference between a service that works 99 per cent of the time, versus 85 per cent of the time, he said. “It would be cool to have it for the value the people in town pay.”