The internet on Monika Benoit’s northern Alberta farm was bad enough before the pandemic.
Now it’s almost “non-existent.”
“We sigh a lot,” said Benoit, who farms with husband Mike near High Prairie. “Even when there’s not a pandemic, we have internet issues. But with the isolation and social distancing protocols we’re supposed to be following, it has got a lot worse.”
Because of COVID-19, Canadians are working, schooling and socializing online to an unprecedented degree — which works if you have high-speed internet. But that’s not the case for most rural residents.
“I compare it to a water hose that’s an inch thick — the more holes you put in it, the lower the pressure gets,” said Al Kemmere, president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta.
“That’s what we’re experiencing right now. The internet delivery model is just not strong enough to take the amount of draw that’s on it.”
As a result, rural Albertans are experiencing issues not seen since the days of dial-up — videos that buffer, dropped connections, and in some cases, no connection at all.
“This is our new system of communication,” said Kemmere. “We shouldn’t have to live with a service that is so second class compared to what other people in our province have.”
On the Benoits’ farm, the couple has been relying on the internet to take care of their farm business ahead of seeding — or at least they’ve been trying to.
“We try to do things electronically, and we can’t because it’s not working,” said Benoit.
She and her husband have been trying to connect for things such as banking, filling out online funding applications, and reviewing grain contracts, with limited success.
“It’s been a lot more tedious. When I go to upload files, I basically have to set it up and go do something else while I wait for it to load back up again,” she said.
“That definitely slows down business.”
Not a luxury
The pandemic has underscored the importance of reliable high-speed internet — and amplified long-standing frustrations with the inadequacy of the systems serving rural areas.
“This has taught us how desperately badly we need improved performance — bandwidth and speed of connectivity — in rural Alberta,” said Jason Bradley, director of smart ag at Olds College.
“There’s a whole infrastructure requirement for rural connectivity in Canada.”
High-speed internet is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity, he said.
“Rural connectivity is an essential service,” said Bradley. “For Canada to be able to meet the essential need for food, as has been highlighted by this pandemic, we need to be able to run our businesses as efficiently and effectively as possible to make sure we’re supplying food to the supply chain.
“These products that we’re buying in the stores have to start on the farm. And if the farm isn’t provided with the same high-speed connectivity infrastructure that the rest of the industry is provided, we will be at risk.”
Slow speed is not just a pressing issue today, it’s a barrier for farmers trying to incorporate a wave of new technology that experts say is the future of agriculture.
Olds College’s Smart Farm has both rural narrowband connectivity and a wireless mesh network that provides Wi-Fi to the entire farm to facilitate these technologies.
“High-speed connectivity is fairly important when it comes to some of these technologies,” said Bradley. “All the different tools and devices and innovations that require high speed are going to have to have that to allow our producers to be highly competitive and highly profitable.”
The Benoits have explored digital farm management options such as Farmers Edge, one of several precision ag companies whose services are based on things such as collecting data in real time from farm equipment and combining it with satellite imagery, weather info and other data to produce sophisticated management tools for things such as variable-rate seeding and input applications.
But given their limited internet capability, the Benoits can’t justify the investment.
“We’ve decided we’re going to hold off on that until we have better internet or cell service,” she said. “If we’re out in the field somewhere, there’s lots of stuff we won’t be able to use if we can’t connect to the internet.”
Another company in this space is AGvisorPRO, which offers a new app that promises to “instantly connect” farmers with agricultural advisers right in the field.
“The degree we’re able to help farmers or advisers remotely is tied to the expectation that AGvisorPRO would be able to reach them in the field,” said company founder Robert Saik.
“If they can’t get a signal in the field, we can’t make this thing work.”
While the system has been developed to run on “relatively thin broadband,” the ability to use a key feature of the app — photo and video diagnostics — suffers without strong internet or cellular coverage.
“You can’t have a smart farm with a stupid internet connection,” said Saik. “We can’t have adequate development and adequate integration of smart technology with a stupid connection. It just doesn’t work.”
Farmers run the risk of being left behind by inadequate internet service — and that makes no sense, either, he said.
“Can you imagine being in Calgary and running a $10-million business without the internet? Of course not. It’s ridiculous,” said Saik.
“And yet there are farms all over the place running $10-million businesses without adequate broadband. It’s preposterous.”
And that gap between urban and rural is about to get a lot larger.
The current internet standard is 4G (fourth generation) but the technology is about to take a big jump forward with 5G. It not only offers much faster speeds (up to, in theory, 100 times faster) and much more bandwidth, but also addresses an even bigger issue — latency.
Latency is the lag time between devices and servers. Having a superfast connection between the two is key. For example, making self-driving equipment work properly depends on a powerful remote computer analyzing what’s going on so it can instantaneously instruct the vehicle how to respond to what’s happening at the moment.
“5G will be something totally new in terms of allowing the speed of information to travel really rapidly,” said Rob Ghiz, president and CEO of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association.
Bridging the divide
But it doesn’t come cheap.
“For a country of our size with our small population base, it’s a very expensive endeavour,” said Ghiz. “Our estimate is that 5G in Canada will cost approximately $26 billion over the next five to seven years.”
Those economics are a challenge when you’re talking about urban centres. The business case for rural internet has always been a tough sell.
The federal government regulates the telecommunications industry, and while politicians have long promised to address the ‘digital divide’ between urban and rural Canada, progress has been slow because internet service providers can’t justify very big investments for a very small customer base.
“For us, it’s really about having a regulatory environment that encourages investment by facilities-based carriers,” said Ghiz. “Hopefully governments will look to provide a more favourable environment and encourage the providers in Canada to invest more. But like anything, the regulatory framework needs to be in place for that.”
Kemmere agrees that better government regulations are needed — but for the service providers themselves.
“They’re not going to do what needs to be done to provide connectivity in the rural environment if they’re not legislated to do so,” he said. “We need to get to a point where, if the companies are going to provide a level of service within the higher-populated areas, they also need to provide a relatively similar service in rural areas.”
For Saik, it comes down to a combination of better public policy and infrastructure development — and that will depend on both private and public investment.
“Where does the investment come from for roads? Where does the investment come from for bridges? To me, this is foundational,” he said, adding some countries have declared access to the internet as a basic human right.
“I’m hopeful that we in Canada are going to continue to lead (as smart ag developers), but we need the infrastructure, and we need the investment.”
For farmers like the Benoits, the promise of reliable high-speed internet hits much closer to home — it could make or break their business.
“We’re at a point where we need the internet to do our day-to-day business,” said Benoit.
“If I have to pay three times as much a month to have the same internet that my competitor in the States has, that’s a huge hit to our operation.”