A year ago in June of 2019, I wrote a column related to the urgent requirement for investments into rural broadband. In August of 2020, as Canadian society and the economy have become highly dependent upon virtual connections, that demand is exponentially greater.
The historic business case for improved broadband service in rural areas of Canada, Ontario and Waterloo Region has been relatively precise. Farmers and other operations require adequate internet for fast linkages with customers and suppliers across Canada and around the world. I also wrote a year ago that many of Waterloo Region’s rural residents work in urban centres and when weather conditions and other factors (such as a global pandemic) conspire to keep employees out of the office, adequate broadband width is essential to maintain productivity levels.
In the political arena, the Western Ontario Wardens’ Caucus is now requesting nearly $500 million in funding to improve rural internet access across the 519 area code. Specifically, the recommendation is $254 million originating from the federal government with the province allocating $221 million.
George Cornell, warden of Simcoe County, recently noted that through COVID-19, we have all come to recognize the value of broadband internet access, affordability, reliability, and speed. The pandemic has further elevated an existing rural /urban digital divide as online learning and people working from home rapidly increase.
Cornell noted that he has heard of rural students using Wi-Fi from local fast food restaurants to complete school assignments and employees driving to the top of hills for better cell service.
However as more employers are staying remote for longer periods of time and some have finalized or are contemplating decisions to permanently have staff work from home, internet investments have the potential to provide huge benefits for rural communities by attracting new residents.
A recent Global News report from July 22, 2020 indicates significant home sales in areas on average about 86 kilometres away from Toronto. The increase has been caused, in part, by the flexibility afforded to those working from home.
From a public policy perspective, as more residents move to rural areas the political pressure to provide better internet service will correspondingly increase. Broadband is clearly the centre of a “new normal” for the future of business.