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'Long overdue': Ontario farmers say lack of reliable broadband Internet is hurting their business

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture wants the federal government to commit to $100 million a year for broadband Internet expansion in rural and remote areas.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture is calling on the federal government to invest in rural Internet

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture says reliable Internet service is becoming a business necessity for farmers, students and business owners in rural and remote parts of the province. (Scott Anderson/The Daily Journal/Canadian Press)

Don Miller just wants to pay his bills.

But the Elgin County farmer and business owner says the straightforward task is made complicated by the spotty Internet connection in his hamlet of Iona Station, Ont. 

In July, Miller says he was out of service for 10 days because of a service provider 'equipment malfunction,' and only narrowly regained his connection in time to pay an $8,000 fertilizer and pesticide bill before the end of the month.

Even on an average day, Miller says he knows not to rely on the Internet in the evenings, when the connection often goes down because too many people are trying to use it at once.

Still, Miller says it's an improvement over his previous service provider, Eastlink, which stopped offering service to him and nine other people in Iona Station in the spring. 

"It's a bit frustrating," said Miller, who also uses the Internet to stay up-to-date on cattle and grain prices.

"It would be nice to have the Internet there when you want it, and have capacity to do what you want to do in speed."

Situations like Miller's have prompted the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) to push for a hefty investment in broadband expansion for rural and remote parts of the province. In a submission to the federal government's 2019 pre-budget consultation, the OFA has asked the feds to commit to rural Internet expansion to a tune of $100 million per year.

Neil Currie, general manager of the OFA, likened the proposed Internet expansion to the electrification of rural Ontario in the 1930s.

Neil Currie is general manager with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture. (Submitted)

"It was an essential service in the 1930s, just as broadband is essential now, and actually quite long overdue," said Currie.

"We should've been doing this in the 90s."

Currie says the OFA has been calling for investment in broadband infrastructure for years, with various governments "picking at" the problem in fits and starts.

In 2016, the federal government committed to $500 million in funding to bring broadband Internet access to 300 rural and remote communities by 2021 through the "Connect to Innovate" program.

Still, Currie says there's more work to be done, particularly in southwest Ontario, which has seen less investment relative to eastern parts of the province. 

"We really need a concerted effort now," he said.

Not a problem the 'invisible hand' can solve

The low density of potential customers means that many telecom companies don't see a business case for investing in rural Internet, Currie says. (Denis Rozhnovsky/Shutterstock)

The low density in rural communities means the lack of Internet service isn't going to be resolved by the marketplace alone, Currie said. Whereas an urban centre may have 48 customers per kilometre, he says a rural area may have just eight. 

"The cost per unit is just too expensive for individuals to be able to afford, so we're looking at public investment in it as an essential service," he said.

Still, the hefty price tag will be balanced by economic benefits in the long run, Currie said. Experts say Canada has an opportunity to become a leading player in the world's agri-food industry, but that investment is needed to make that happen.

As an example, Doug Knox, vice-president of the Guelph-based agri-tech accelerator Bioenterprise, points to the growth of "precision" agriculture. He says farmers can now use sensors to extract information about everything from soil content to the growth stage of their crops, which helps to make data-driven decisions about fertilizing and planting.

Doug Knox works in precision agriculture, and says access to data can have a big impact on farmers' crop yields. (Submitted)

The problem comes in having to download all that data, which could take hours with a bad connection, Knox said. The time lag is so severe that Knox said many farmers simply choose not to implement these technologies, which can affect their farm's output.

"The yield may be lower because of not being able to understand what's happening with the crop that's growing, and so the impact is huge for the farmer," said Knox.

"As farms grow in size and equipment gets bigger and relies more on these technologies, it's almost a requirement to get that kind of data and to access it once it's processed."

Thinking even beyond Canada, Currie says keeping up with technology is a requirement that's becoming all the more critical as the world's population increases.

"We're trying to feed nine billion people by 2050, we have the resources and the capacity to do it, we just need to make the proper and prudent investments to let it happen."

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