APAS wants better telecommunication services in rural Saskatchewan

With the continued issues around telecommunications services in Saskatchewan, the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan (APAS) conducted a survey from May 2019 to January 2020 on internet and cellular service in rural Saskatchewan. Over 500 rural residents from across Saskatchewan took part in the survey.

They found a high level of disruption, dissatisfaction, and disinvestment in rural communities. APAS is concerned because of the need for reliable internet and cellular coverage for rural communities to support their businesses, students, health services, and overall quality of life. 75 per cent of survey respondents said they aren’t satisfied with their rural internet service and 63 per cent aren’t satisfied with their mobile phone service.

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“When you’re out harvesting, you have no time to waste, so when slow service keeps you from getting your parts, bidding on equipment, or signing your contract, it can mean the difference between a profit and loss that day,” said APAS President Todd Lewis. “It’s not only the difference between making and losing money. If I get stuck out in the field and I can’t call for help it can be a potentially dangerous situation.” 

Lewis says it was imperative for APAS to put together a survey to show how serious the telecommunication problem is throughout the province. 

“It’s very important,” said Lewis. “The survey was over in January 2020 and we’ve heard nothing, but more problems since the Covid-19 situation kicked in, with kids doing remote learning, people working from home, and increased demands on the system. In January we had four out of five people that weren’t satisfied with their service. It’s very wide spread and very spotty across the province.”

As technology continues to advance, having reliable cell and internet service becomes more and more important for people to function at their best in everyday life and Saskatchewan hasn’t prioritized the problem, says Lewis.

“When you look at the map within the survey, boy we’ve got terrible coverage even compared to Manitoba and Alberta,” he said. “This is going to become a competitive disadvantage because so much of our business has to be done through cell service or the internet. A good example would be diagnostics on a lot of the new equipment. If you’re connected you can have some diagnostics done over the internet with simply the push of a button and the dealership can tell you what’s the matter and reset a tractor or a combine. But if you’re not connected they have to send a service technician out and it costs real money to do that. We’re getting further and further behind all the time.”

The issue must be resolved, says Lewis, and he believes getting multiple groups involved in the effort can be the first steps towards improving rural internet and cell services.

“This has been a longstanding problem and we’re not seeing much improvement,” he said. “We’d like to see some collaboration with SaskTel and private carriers and the provincial and federal government. We host a lot of the major industries in rural Saskatchewan, whether it be oil and gas or the potash mines. Let’s work with all those groups and see if we can boost rural connectivity through some of the services they receive. 

“First Nations have talked that there may be some infrastructure dollars federally to improve connectivity through First Nations. Let’s work with First Nations so it serves them and the surrounding rural area as well. There’s also corporate people, be in the railroads for instance, they may need to increase their connectivity for some of the things they want to do along the mainlines. If there’s an opportunity, we need to have a real collaborative effort to try and increase rural service and do the best we can.”

It might not seem like a major disadvantage to some, says Lewis, but he points to how important technological advances have been in Saskatchewan through history.  

“Even back in the 1920’s, the phone system had to be put across rural Saskatchewan,” he said. “At that time it was greatly needed to do our business. In the 40’s and 50’s rural electrification was a huge issue and we got electricity across the province and I don’t think anybody would want to live without that now. We’re quickly coming to the point where the connectivity, cell service or internet, is maybe just as important as the other two going forward and in a lot of cases even replacing the telephone service.”

Lewis says the poor telecommunication services aren’t just in areas far from communities, but the issue is all over the province.

“I think this is something that’s being recognized,” he said. “Going forward we hope we can get different groups working together on this. We’re going to do another survey now to try and engage the small villages and towns. I think something that’s interesting from the survey results is, it didn’t make much difference if you lived close to a major city in Saskatchewan, there’s still some pretty poor service. 

“Certainly small towns, small urbans, and even not so small urbans—we have members around the Moosomin area that complain and they’re not far off from the #1 Highway and not far from Moosomin and still their coverage isn’t very good. With the potash industry right in the area at Rocanville, you’d think there would be far better coverage than there is from what we hear from our members out there. It’s just the perfect example of why we need to see an improvement and it’s really starting to impact how people conduct business in the province.”

Now that APAS has gathered the data to show how big a need improved coverage is, Lewis says the next step is working with the government to put together and implement a plan to address the situation. 

“This is showing the governments that we need to see this prioritized and need to see some real solid planning coming forward,” he said. “What is the plan, how are we going to increase it, and if there’s opportunity for new technologies and those kind of issues as well, let’s get on that. Also use existing technologies, the fibre optic systems in the province and understanding that some of the Crown corporations, other than SaskTel, have fibre optics and make that network available to supply cell service in the province. Let’s see if some of that fibre optic network could be used for better improvements in rural areas.

“What we’re looking for is to start getting a plan in motion,” he said. “I know SaskTel has continuous improvements. The provincial government puts money towards this, the federal government talks about infrastructure, and it’s important to recognize that Saskatchewan has close to half the arable land in the country. It’s quickly becoming a necessity to conduct business in the province and even to have people living in rural areas, we’re going to need better coverage.”

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