Connecting Saskatchewan

The Rural Connectivity Task Force seeks solutions to poor rural internet

Written by Nikko Snyder

Photos by Michael Bell

Rural Connectivity Task Force members (left to right: Ian Boxall, Bev Pirio, Jeremy Welter, Bill Prybylski). Missing: Paige Stewart

Rural Connectivity Task Force members (left to right: Ian Boxall, Bev Pirio, Jeremy Welter, Bill Prybylski). Missing: Paige Stewart

The economic value of connecting rural Saskatchewan could be up to $1.2 billion in additional economic activity for the province.

A frozen face or garbled voice on the other end of a Zoom call has been an all-too-common part of life in the last year, especially for those living in rural areas.

It’s a scenario that members of the APAS Rural Connectivity Task Force have dealt with repeatedly since the group formed in September 2020 to work on improving Saskatchewan’s rural internet.

“It’s very ironic that we’re having to do so much of this work virtually,” says farmer and Task Force member Paige Stewart of Fillmore, SK, about navigating poor internet during Task Force meetings.

Between them, the five agricultural producers that make up the Rural Connectivity Task Force have experienced every possible frustration that folks dealing with the challenges of poor rural internet face daily.

Insufficient internet speeds to keep their kids learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Missed land deals and auction purchases. Inadequate connections to fully utilize high-tech farm equipment. Difficulties working off-farm jobs from home. The inability to relax in front of Netflix at the end of a long week. You name it, they’ve experienced it, and there is no end to the stories they can tell.

Their unique rural perspectives, combined with APAS’s credibility and solutions-focused approach, has made the Rural Connectivity Task Force a force to be reckoned with when it comes to tackling poor rural internet.

“We’ve identified the problem and our goal is to find the solution,” says Task Force member and APAS Vice-President Ian Boxall of Tisdale, SK. “APAS’s approach to all policy issues is to not just complain about them, but to find solutions that are implementable and achievable and that can work.”

According to Task Force Chair Jeremy Welter of Kerrobert, SK, APAS’s non-partisan approach is also a huge benefit. “We have a stronger voice because when we lay something out there’s no political slant to it,” he says. “It’s just straight common sense. And we’re not showing up wet behind the ears. This is something APAS has been working on for the past two years.”

Rural Connectivity Task Force Chair and farmer Jeremy Welter.

Recognizing missed opportunities

Poor rural connectivity negatively impacts the health, education, and safety of rural residents. It also results in barriers to economic growth in rural communities, which is a major problem in Saskatchewan, which relies heavily on agriculture and other rural industries to drive the economy.

Jeremy Welter sums up the problem as a missed opportunity. “You can’t be 100 per cent aware of the opportunities that are missed,” he explains. “Missing out on a great deal at an online auction is something everyone could recognize. But there’s more than that, and the average person isn’t aware of most missed opportunities because these are projects that don’t even make it to the planning stage.”

There have been efforts to put a dollar value to what these missed opportunities have cost Saskatchewan. According to the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA), the economic value of connecting rural Saskatchewan could be up to $1.2 billion in additional Gross Domestic Product (i.e., economic activity) for the province.

As a rural industry that increasingly relies on high-tech, connected equipment, agriculture certainly stands to contribute to this improved economic picture in a well-connected Saskatchewan.

But without adequate connectivity, there is no way for agriculture to reach its economic potential—potential that both the provincial and federal governments count on when planning for long-term economic growth.

“Agriculture is going to rise to the top in Saskatchewan as the primary driver of our economy,” argues Task Force member Paige Stewart of Fillmore, SK. “If we can’t keep up with making use of the technology that is offered to us, we won’t be able to compete. We have to make sure that Saskatchewan farms have competitive access to keep up with the rest of the world. I want it recognized that getting growers good connectivity is priority number one to benefit the economy.”

Identifying solutions

In 2016 the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) set out a national internet service goal for Canadians: 50 megabytes per second (Mbps) for downloads and 10 Mbps for uploads for all Canadian by 2030. It’s known as “50/10” and is considered fast enough for Canadians to meet their day-to-day needs in a connected world, including using streaming services and cloud-based applications, and having multiple people use the internet at the same time.

So is there a magic bullet that will see all of rural Canada connected at the speeds promised by the federal government?

“Initially I thought we were going to get all this information together and fix the problem,” says Task Force member Bev Pirio, who farms near Radville, SK. “But I realize now there’s no quick solution.”

In the case of Saskatchewan, it’s unlikely that one single technology will achieve universal access for all. Instead, a combination of technologies will be needed.

For example, while fiber optic wireline is the gold standard in terms of internet speed, quality, and longevity, it’s not necessarily a practical or affordable option for individual farms and other remote locations, at least not in the short term. Rather, investments are needed in a range of technologies that make sense in a variety of contexts. In Saskatchewan that will probably look like fiber optic wireline connections for some, and wireless connections to towers or satellites for others.

When it comes right down to it, the problem is less about technology and more about economics, regulation, and collaboration.

Without adequate connectivity, there is no way for agriculture to reach its economic potential—potential that both the provincial and federal governments count on when planning for long-term economic growth.

Rural Connectivity Task Force meeting in November 2020.

We need to see investments into rural connectivity as investments into local economies with important economic and social returns.

The economics of connectivity

One of the most important things to understand about connectivity are the economics that drive it. In short, unless there is a business case to connect a community, it’s unlikely to happen. And the more rural or remote the community is, the less attractive the business case will be. At the end of the day, profitable projects are the priority.

There are many solutions to this problem.

Letting smaller service providers play a role is one, but this requires policy changes at both the provincial and federal level. In Saskatchewan, our provincial Crown corporation SaskTel (which provides 60 per cent of wireless service in the province) needs support and incentives to be able to effectively partner with smaller providers.

Federal funding can also help if it’s delivered in the right way. Right now, over $7 billion in federal funds have been committed towards getting connectivity projects up and running. But for rural internet service to be financially sustainable over the long term, funding for operations and maintenance is also needed. Unfortunately, ongoing operational funding isn’t currently available, leaving some of the most underserved communities with few or no options.

An attractive business case isn’t the only (or best) way to think about connecting rural and remote communities. We also need to see investments into rural connectivity as investments into local economies with important economic and social returns.

“I was really disappointed to learn that was not part of how we decide where this funding goes,” says Paige Stewart. “How can it not be part of a funding request to say the project is going to create X-number of jobs, or that it’s going to kick back this amount of money into the economy?”

Regardless of these important economic questions, the fact remains: since 2016 high-speed internet has been considered a basic service no less important than telephone service. This means that profitability aside, every Canadian needs to be connected.

“It needs to be a right, not a privilege,” says Bev Pirio.

In the Saskatchewan context, we must ask how Saskatchewan’s publicly owned Crown corporations are working to ensure this right to universal high-speed internet access.

“We deserve the internet service that the government has promised us, so some of this needs to be done for the public good,” says Ian Boxall. “There is a point where SaskTel has a responsibility to the public to provide this internet service to us.”

Partnering for the public good

How universal internet access will be achieved remains to be seen, but it will certainly involve many strong partnerships. In some cases, this may look like SaskTel partnering with smaller service providers to deliver service to rural and remote communities.

“There are a lot of people out there that are really suffering because big companies look at them and go ‘that’s not lucrative,’” says Jeremy Welter. “But a small company might only need 100 people.”

There may also be an opportunity—and a necessary one—for SaskTel to partner with other provincial Crowns to make use of existing infrastructure such as “dark fiber,” which refers to fiber optic wireline that is in the ground but isn’t currently being used for residential and commercial internet service.

“The dark fiber stuff blew my mind,” says Bev Pirio. “The fact that there’s fiber in the ground for SaskPower is so frustrating to me. Because I feel like that’s our solution to a certain degree, and the door is just shut in our face. And SaskTel and SaskPower don’t work together, and that surprises me because they’re both owned by the people.”

Use it or lose it

Dark fiber isn’t the only example of where technology and infrastructure to solve the problem might already exist. In some cases, the failure to take advantage of existing resources happens at the regulatory level, where the mechanisms to enforce accountability are lacking.

The management of spectrum, for example, leaves a lot of room for improvement. “Spectrum” refers to the radio waves that are used to send signals between a wireless device and a connecting point such as a cellphone tower, modem, or satellite. Spectrum is treated as a limited resource and is distributed by the federal government to internet service providers through auction. Spectrum auctions have raised billions of dollars for the federal government.

How spectrum is managed (or mismanaged) can make or break a region’s connectivity. Although service providers agree to conditions about how and when they will use the spectrum they lease (including an agreement to “use it or lose it”), these conditions aren’t generally enforced, leaving plenty of available spectrum sitting idle and unused.

“I was surprised and disappointed that the ‘use it lose it’ clause has never really been enforced, kind of like an old toothless lion,” says Jeremy Welter. “I think that is one of the biggest issues federally that needs to be addressed.”

“Companies are buying up spectrum and then never utilizing it, and there are still citizens who do not have adequate internet service,” adds Ian Boxall. “And yet they’re hoarding that spectrum. I found it surprising that the government didn’t put more emphasis on the ‘use it or lose it’ side of those contracts.”

What comes next for rural connectivity?

After months of interviews and careful study with the industry’s top experts and service providers, the consensus of the Rural Connectivity Task Force is that there is a no simple solution.

“It’s been a real eye-opener,” says Task Force member and APAS Vice-President Bill Prybylski of Willowbrook, SK. “The complexity of the whole issue, all the different components that have to come together to provide a reliable network of internet service and cell coverage. Between satellites and fiber optics, all the different service providers, and the spectrum auctions, it’s been a real eye opener.”

And yet solutions do exist. The Rural Connectivity Task Force is developing a thorough series of recommendations that will be included in their final report, due out this year.

But it’s what happens after the recommendations are released that will be the most critical.

“I’m really looking forward to speaking with the government about this. I can’t wait for that,” says Bev Pirio about the next stage of the Task Force’s work. “I’m anxious for them to know that farmers and rural people in Saskatchewan can work together, and that we will stick this out until there’s a solution.”

The ultimate goal?

“Long term I’d like to see the government’s 50/10 goals attained,” says Jeremy Welter. “Because if they are that means that every rural resident in Canada, not just Saskatchewan, has access. And something that’s been missed a little too often is affordable access. Long term I’d like to see every rural resident have affordable access to the 50/10 plan that the federal government has.”

But that’s not where his vision ends. “Going out 25 or even 40 years down the road, I’d like to see our country regain the position we had off the start. Canada used to be number two in the world in terms of connectivity. What I’m talking about is really investing in the future and working hard to drive the next iteration of business growth into our economies. The need for connectivity and the continued growth through tech is not going anywhere. It’s going to continue to grow. So long-term we need to have a plan to position ourselves at the forefront of that to drive that growth into our local communities.

“I’m really looking forward to speaking with the government about this. I’m anxious for them to know that farmers and rural people in Saskatchewan can work together, and that we will stick this out until there’s a solution.”
– Bev Pirio, Task Force member

Glossary of Internet Terms

When it comes to the internet, there are many technical terms that can be difficult to understand. Here are definitions of some of the most common.

Bandwidth: the maximum capacity of an internet connection (not the speed). For example, if you have a 100 Mbps internet package, your bandwidth is 100 Mbps, meaning the most data (i.e., information) your connection can download at one time is 100 Mbps. Your actual internet speed is likely to be less than your bandwidth most of the time because of network congestion and other external factors.

Broadband: telecommunications services that allow the high-speed transmission of data at speeds of 1.5 Mbps and above.

Download speed: the time it takes to receive (i.e., download) data from a server to your computer in the form of images, videos, text, files, and audio.

Upload speed: the time it takes to send (i.e., upload) data from your computer to another device or server on the internet.

Internet Service Provider (ISP): A company that provides access to the Internet.

Last mile: the portion of the telecommunications network that physically reaches the retail customer’s premises.

Latency: the amount of time it takes to send data from one point to the next. Every time you put in a request to your internet connection (e.g., search for something on Google, check social media, etc.), the information is sent to a server and then sent back to you. The delay or time you wait is the latency. It is measured in milliseconds (ms) and is also referred to as a ping rate.

LEO satellite: a low earth orbit (LEO) satellite is an object, generally a piece of electronic equipment, that circles around the earth at an altitude of 200-2000 kms. LEO satellites are being used increasingly to deliver wireless internet service (e.g., Starlink). They are closer to the earth than other types of satellites, allowing information to travel to and from them much more quickly and resulting in reduced latency (or delay).

Megabits per second (Mbps): the measurement of data transfer (used to measure internet speed).

Spectrum: the invisible radio waves that wireless information travels over. Wireless devices (e.g., smartphones, tablets, etc.) use these radio waves to transmit information. Different frequencies of spectrum are used to carry other types of information, including television and AM and FM radio.

Wireless: using radio waves, microwaves, etc. (as opposed to wires or cables) to transmit information.

Wireline: using cables, or data lines (e.g., fibre optic, cable) to transmit information.

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