Where forestry and gaming intersect: a need for better internet in rural B.C.
Innovation will require connectivity, analysts say
Visiting his home in northern British Columbia for Christmas, Randal Stark noticed a problem: the internet was slow.
"Comparing the internet to anywhere else in the world, it's pretty laughable," Stark said in an interview from Fort St. James, 160 kilometres northwest of Prince George.
Stark isn't alone — plenty of people in rural communities have called for better internet access — but his position is unique. Under the handle "Roolf," Stark spent the past year touring the world and earning thousands of dollars as a professional video game player.
Pro video gaming is a growing industry and, according to experts, just one of many that British Columbians may have trouble competing in without better internet.
Will Cadell, the founder of an online mapping company and chair of Prince George's Innovation Central Society said access to the internet and cloud computing was becoming increasingly important, even in traditional resource industries.
"It's the bones of the operations. Without that connectivity, you don't get the rest of the business benefit associated with access to data or more creation of data, more understanding of how to run a business based on your actual performance," he said.
He used the example of forestry companies monitoring how well their machines and workers perform in sub-zero temperatures as a way of deciding when it no longer becomes worthwhile to operate.
"Is it worth sending them out in -30 C? I don't know. Let's find out," he said, adding mining operations are already doing that sort of data analysis around the world.
Tim Caldecott of FPInnovations, a not-for-profit focused on research and tech in forestry, said much of the industry was operating the same as it had in the 1980s.
"There's no smartphones, no communications," he said. "We operate with radios just the way we did before."
Caldecott believes it is time for that to change, with real-time communication between machines and workers, but more robust data networks will be needed in order to make that a reality.
"If you want to see the next major leap in the forest industry in B.C., I think that will be one way to make that happen."
In 2017, the B.C. government announced it would be investing $40 million into improving internet capacity in rural and remote communities, as a way to improve job prospects outside major centres.
The CRTC has also declared broadband internet an essential service in recognition of its role in helping entrepreneurs and major companies alike.
Still, Cadell said many parts of B.C. are lacking the high-speed connections enjoyed inside cities.
"You have a couple of guys on Netflix, and the whole thing goes down," he said.
With files from Nicole Oud and George Baker