Rural Communities Lag Behind in Broadband Use
BY ANDREW VOWLES
“Build it and they will come” might have worked for a baseball-mad corn farmer in the movie Field of Dreams. But it'll take more than dreams to bring high-speed Internet access to farm families, says a Guelph faculty member whose research will help the Ontario government develop broadband capacity for economic and social development.
Farmers and non-farm rural communities need not just technology but also the capacity to make innovative use of the Internet, says Prof. Helen Hambly, School of Environmental Design and Rural Development (SEDRD). She says building that capacity is critical to ensuring services work in sizeable rural areas that have more limited access to broadband than their urban cousins do.
She's completing a research paper intended to help guide the provincial government in supporting high-speed Internet expansion in rural Ontario.
Hambly says people living on farms and in rural communities lag behind their urban counterparts in broadband use. She adds that Ontario in general trails Alberta and British Columbia in networking its citizens.
“Ontario should not get left behind in this,” she says.
Her research this year shows that farmers and rural dwellers can benefit from Internet access for a variety of uses. Some communities rely on e-mail and, less often, VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol or phone calls over the Internet) to run producer co-ops, sell farm products and share information among farmers, producers and customers.
Ontario's agricultural producers are working in an increasingly global economy, says Hambly. “The information they require is moving at faster speeds.”
People living in rural communities might also use broadband — and such features as video streaming, sharing of graphic and text files, and access to portals — to help run non-profit organizations or small businesses, to engage in telework or to pursue distance education.
From a social perspective, Hambly believes it's important to give people tools to help them remain in their home communities rather than have to move to urban areas. It also helps rural dwellers maintain their role as environmental stewards, she says, pointing to the impact of agricultural production on quality of food and water for country and city.
She notes that many areas of rural southern Ontario — home to most of the province's agricultural and rural population — lack full broadband service. With the province's population expected to increase by about 20 per cent in the next 10 years, that area will see continued growth, she says.
“The unique thing about our project is the focus on farm families and rural communities. We're interested in how much broadband will make a difference among farm families in rural and southern Ontario.”
Since January, Hambly has been researching and writing recommendations for the provincial government with co-author Prof. John FitzSimons, SEDRD. She's working with Laxmi Pant, a PhD candidate studying agricultural innovation systems, and Peter Sykanda, a recent master's graduate who looked at information flow among Ontario poultry producers. Their project is called “Cultivating Innovation in Farm Families and Rural Communities: Capacity Development for Broadband Use in Southern Ontario.”