Two Economic Futures for Rural Canada (And How to Ensure the Best One)

We’ve dedicated a lot of blog space recently to the cause of expanding access to fast, reliable internet to all rural Canadians. But we haven’t spent as much time talking about how to ensure everyone can actually adopt a high-quality internet service once it’s available—namely, by ensuring affordability.

While universal access is an important goal, the failure to consider affordability could ultimately harm the economic future of rural Canada. In this blog, we’ll consider two possible economic outcomes for rural communities and, more importantly, what we can all do to ensure the best one.

The Cautionary Tale of Urban Centres’ Digital Divide

When we talk about the “digital divide” in Canada, we’re usually referring to the divide between urban and rural Canada. But did you know there’s also a digital divide within urban centres? A recent editorial in The Globe and Mail raised the question: “How can we lift up underprivileged children and youth in highly urbanized municipalities without equal access to broadband service? How can our cities prosper post-COVID if low-income, racialized and marginalized communities fall even further behind? Will we end up living in cities with even deeper demarcated “have” and “have-not” lines?”

For rural advocates, this may seem strange at first. After all, didn’t Competition Bureau Canada find that “approximately 99% of Canadian homes in large population centres have access to the 50 Mbps and higher speed services associated with modern cable or fibre optic networks”?

In urban centres, the divide isn’t rooted in access but in adoption, mainly due to high prices. The Globe and Mail’s editorial goes on to explain, “Canadians pay some of the highest prices in the world for home internet and mobile data plans – two to three times higher than most other developed countries. That affects our economy and deals yet another blow to low-income, racialized and marginalized communities.”

This urban digital divide serves as a cautionary tale for leaders of rural communities. If we focus solely on building out the infrastructure without taking affordability into account, we won’t solve the problem of a digital divide and its effect on our economic future.

Two Possible Economic Futures on the Horizon for Rural Canada

With this urban problem in mind, we can see two possible economic futures on the horizon for rural communities.

In one future, leaders focus only on expanding access without considering adoption. Rural communities end up with the same internal divide as urban centres. Lower-income families and marginalized groups remain unlikely to have in-home internet access.

As a result, those families’ children won’t have equal access to virtual learning, online education resources, and opportunities to enhance digital literacy. Similarly, the adults won’t have access to the same economic opportunities that remote work affords those with reliable internet. When lower-income individuals face limited economic opportunities, the entire community’s economic potential is limited.

Anyone unable to afford the internet will also lack access to telehealth technologies. They won’t be able to seek care from home amidst a pandemic or receive convenient, ongoing care for chronic conditions. The elderly won’t be able to use technology to monitor their health and share results with their doctors, who could catch major health problems earlier. All of these inequalities result in worse healthcare outcomes. And when healthcare outcomes go down, healthcare costs go up, affecting everyone in the community.

Essentially, when only the “haves” in rural Canada have access to the internet, the health and education outcomes of a community suffer. When those things suffer, the economy suffers, too.

The other potential future is one where we successfully prioritize the health and education of all rural Canadians, resulting in a strong rural economy. This will require that all rural Canadians have both access to the internet and realistic ways to actually afford and use it.

How can we make that happen? Well, let’s look back at that editorial in The Globe and Mail: “Typically, the buildout of broadband infrastructure has been left to the telecoms. But municipalities are closest to their residents and should be empowered to respond to their needs. This could be accomplished by reimagining our municipalities as ‘public utilities’ and leveraging their assets to create connected digital infrastructure. We must support their sustainable development for the future.”

We agree! If we want a sustainable, healthy economic future for rural Canada, we have to put the power in the hands of the residents and leaders in those municipalities and communities. Local leaders are invested and best suited to know the opportunities and challenges unique to their community. They have the empathy and perspective needed to shape customized solutions that work for everyone.

Ensuring the Best Economic Future for Rural Canada

Of course, empathy and perspective is only part of what’s needed to build a community-owned solution. Leaders also need technical knowledge, resources, and partners who can equip them to execute a solution that serves everyone.

That’s where we come in. Our Community Broadband Networks program allows us to partner with those passionate community broadband champions to plan and build rural networks. We ensure those networks are universal (providing access to everyone in the community) as well as profitable and community-owned (backed by a business plan that makes access affordable and sustainable).

We do this by helping leaders…

  • Find rural broadband funding and identify local assets that can help cut costs
  • Create community business plans that account for lower-income or marginalized groups
  • Identify future-proof technology that lasts far beyond the time it takes to recoup the investment
  • Empower leaders to think through options for low-cost devices and digital literacy training
  • Execute their plans with partners experienced in rural broadband solutions

We know that local leaders are busy and balance a lot of responsibilities, so our Community Broadband Networks program is an end-to-end program that supports leaders in all three phases of planning and building a rural broadband network:

  • Phase 1: We work with leaders to identify their community’s strengths and opportunities.
  • Phase 2: We help create a custom roadmap and business model for revenue-generating, community-owned broadband networks.
  • Phase 3: We connect communities to trustworthy partners who can build high-quality, rural broadband networks with high-speed internet access for all.

By putting the power in the hands of knowledgeable, empathetic local leaders—and equipping them with a clear roadmap and steady support—we work together to ensure a strong economic future for rural Canada.

If you’re interested in learning more about how we can help you achieve affordable, universal access for your community, we’re here for you and happy to help. Simply call 1.877.721.7070 or email to schedule a free consultation today.

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