As part of our core mandate, Cybera continually pushes for the democratization of technology access in Canada. We’ve seen some major policy successes over the years — particularly with the CRTC decision to mandate bandwidth as a basic communications service needed by everyone. We’re also pleased to see increasing investments by governments (from the municipal to the federal level) into extending the reach of broadband infrastructure.
But for most rural residents, there has been little to no improvement in their access of digital tools.
Many regions still use dial-up or spotty satellite connections to access the internet. Some have no internet options at all. In these regions, schools have to limit the online learning opportunities for students, as cloud-based resources and online textbooks may be impossible to access outside of school hours. Businesses in these areas also have to limit their digital activities – or move to a more urban area.
In fact, every year sees a steady migration of young people from rural regions to larger cities, seeking better opportunities for education, employment and entrepreneurship. This trend has been hollowing out the countryside for decades, and has left behind an aging rural populace with limited experience and understanding of digital technologies and their growing value to communities and economies.
Now I know, in reading this, many urban dwellers may be tempted to say: so what?
So what if towns don’t have connectivity? After all, cities are the real economic drivers of Canada, where the important innovation is coming from. Small towns have quilt shops and rustic diners. They don’t need better connectivity, and we certainly don’t benefit when they get it. Better to focus our resources on the areas where the most people are!
Am I right??
But we all know better (or at least, we should). Rural communities supply the agricultural, forestry, energy and mineral products that make modern urban economies possible. We need lumber, steel, sand and concrete. We need food, fuel and electricity. We need precious metals for our smartphones and laptops, and lithium for the batteries that power them.
Indeed, cities prosper because of the people who live, work and innovate in rural communities. The rural innovators in particular are driving growth in our primary industries and supplying our growing population, while reducing financial, social and environmental costs.
The Difference Innovation Can Make
One example of this rural innovation is “precision agriculture”, which involves the use of sensor, satellite, and infrared technologies by farmers to evaluate crop and soil stability, as well as weather patterns. If used effectively, it can dramatically increase the yield of crops (and reduce losses due to drought/disease/extreme weather). But a 2017 survey of western farmers by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada showed that “fewer than half were heavily into more advanced applications”. As Alberta Farmer Express reported, “the top barriers [the federal survey] found were: cost, inadequate internet and/or cell coverage, a lack of knowledgeable people, the fact the technology is continuously evolving, and having older farm equipment.”
Innovation has become centrally important to Canada's economic future, both urban and rural. Unleashing innovation in rural Canada will require overhauling and expanding our technology infrastructure, as well as growing a new generation of rural workers who can readily learn and apply new knowledge, tools, technologies and processes.
Yes, city dwellers… we ALL need our rural communities to have much better connectivity and digital literacy. So with this in mind, what can WE do to help?
Start by thinking about the difference broadband connectivity and digital literacy will make in the lives of children and youth across rural Canada, today and far into the future. Then take action.
How We All Can Fix The Digital Divide
1. Help bring quality internet to more communities
Sign petitions. Contribute to community broadband crowdfunding pages. Write your local politician to tell them that rural connectivity is of vital importance. Donate broadband equipment to regions that need it.
Write your local, provincial and federal government representatives and tell them that rural connectivity and digital literacy need to be a much higher priorities, and WHY. Donate used or spare equipment to community network initiatives. Sign their petitions, and contribute to their crowdfunding campaigns. And donate your time and expertise, if you have them.
Bruce Buffalo (pictured) started Maskwacis Fibre from his home to deliver free internet to residents of Maskwacis Alberta, who are part of the Samson Cree Nation. But his internet offering was limited to what he could purchase from Xplornet: 25 Mbs down / 1 Mbps up. This was proving difficult to share between 10,000 residents. A team of graduate students at University of Calgary affiliated to IEEE Special Interest Group on Humanitarian Technology (IEEE SIGHT) stepped in and collaborated with Bruce to install equipment to set up antennas, access points, and backhaul links in the community.
The team involved (including Bruce Buffalo, Tushar Sharma, David Garrett, and Anis Ben Arfi) is planning to spin off a not-for-profit organization whose goal is to bridge the digital divide in rural Alberta.
Let’s see more of this please!
2. Donate digital technologies
Got an old computer workstation or laptop to give away? How about a tablet, or digital projector, or network router? Maybe a Raspberry Pi, or a robotics kit? There are schools, clubs and charitable social enterprises looking to collect and distribute any and all devices that could improve the learning / connectivity opportunities for people of all ages.
Groups you can donate to:
- Alberta Computers for Schools
- Sky’s the Limit: Laptops for Youth in Need
- Local libraries
- Local makerspaces / digital workshops
3. Volunteer your time — think “hockey”
Why is Canada a global superpower in ice hockey? Long cold winters help, but our advanced ecosystem for producing world-class hockey talent makes the difference. The anchors and drivers of this ecosystem are thousands of community-owned hockey rinks and hundreds of thousands of parents and others who volunteer to chauffeur, chaperone, coach, mentor, and cheer on our next generations of talent.
Why can’t we create the same ecosystem for digital skills development?
The RCADE ('arcade') in Pincher Creek Alberta is a 'hockey rink' for creative and technical talent, where children, youth and adults can explore and develop their creative and technical talents with digital tools and technologies. Local volunteers are developing the RCADE to provide the opportunities for personal and team development that are becoming common in larger centers. The RCADE needs knowledgeable and experienced volunteers from all areas of digital technology and its applications to mentor and coach the community's budding talent — in person or over the internet. To find out more, contact RCADE volunteer James Van Leeuwen.
You can find similar initiatives in other communities around the province, with similar needs. Our youth and children need your help!
4. Employ more interns
There are plenty of post-secondary institutions across the province looking for companies to host their interns, and plenty of good opportunities to employ and mentor members of Aboriginal communities.
For example, Alberta’s Aboriginal Training to Employment Program offers support to organizations willing to train or provide work experience to First Nations community members.
You can also hired ready-trained individuals as contractors: PLATO Testing is a group out of New Brunswick that trains Aboriginal people across the country to become software testers, and then outsources their services to North American clients. Their focus is on projects that would have previously been sent offshore. This is a great program that should be supported and replicated!
Did we miss anything? Have any thoughts on the best way to promote digital infrastructure and work experience in Canada’s rural regions? Leave a comment below!