Internet connectivity for rural and remote communities an economic necessity

Here is an article from David O’Leary from his roles as chair national council of IT Deans, CEO, CIO, VP, educator, writer IDG-IT World Canada…

Over my thirty-seven year career as an educator, fourteen years have been spent in an urban environment. The remaining twenty-three have been in rural & remote Canada. Over that time I have served on a number of boards associated with information and communications technology. My time serving as the Chair of the National Council of Deans of Information Technology, as a director on the Canadian Sector Council for the Information and Communications Technology Industry and as the province of British Columbia representative to the Anik F2 Satellite Internet Access project provided me with a deep understanding of the state of information and communications technology in Canada.

More and more government and non-governmental services are moving to offer internet based delivery. The number of internet enabled devices is growing at a tremendous rate. At this year’s International Consumer Electronics in Las Vegas Nevada the overarching theme of the event featuring over 3200 exhibitors displaying their wares to over 150,000 attendees was “The Internet of Things”. This as testimony to the realization that so many items from clothing to pet collars are now internet enabled. More and more the internet is becoming a necessity for full participation in society. As that internet dependence increases those without access are marginalized and fall behind in everything from democratic participation to education to access to health care.

According to June 2012 global internet statistics, Asia has the largest number of actual internet users at over one billion while North America has the highest percentage of penetration of total population at seventy-six percent. According to 2010 Census Canada data, seventy-nine percent of Canadians have internet access in their home. British Columbia leads among individual provinces with eighty-four percent of homes having access. But most of this data is based on analysis of urban metropolitan centres. What is the situation for those who live in rural and remote communities? I will use my home province of British Columbia as one example.

In British Columbia work is being done towards full connectivity but while ninety-three percent of the province’s people do have access, seven percent do not. The majority of that seven percent are residents of First Nations communities. Bridging this digital divide in British Columbia and across rural and remote Canada needs to be completed as quickly as possible. And completion does not just mean delivering the connection to the community’s doorstep. Currently, even though many communities have internet at their community it is not in their community except for a few locations – government office, school or band office. Rural and remote communities including many First Nations are simply not a big enough market to warrant a private sector ISP building out the local community network to the individual homes.

Government funded initiatives and partnerships with First Nations continue to encourage local Internet Service Provider development. In 2009 The Pathways to Technology Project assessed connectivity in BC’s 203 First Nations Bands finding 43 of them “unserved”. They are now a little more than halfway through a four year plan to connect 55 First Nations Communities to broadband. A June 2014 Canadian Public Policy Forum report underlines the critical importance of completing this distribution of internet access across Canada’s north. The Federal Government’s own Digital Strategy speaks to the connection between internet access and the very economic prosperity of Canada. Canada relies heavily on its resource rich rural and remote northern communities to finance our wonderful quality of life. I would go so far as to say this region is the economic life blood of our country. If Canada is to maintain its economic position, the people of these rural remote regions must have access to reliable internet connectivity immediately. That connectivity must be delivered at the doorstep of each home and it should, at the very least, enable service that meets the CRTC’s current definition of high speed.

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