Connecting the dots…again: Internet in rural Saskatchewan

Three years ago, Industry West examined the state of internet infrastructure in Saskatchewan, and what high speed connectivity (or the lack thereof) means for the economy. Now, we’re taking another look to see what’s changed.

In 2018, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) set a minimum target where they want 100 per cent of Canadian households to have access to broadband (of at least 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload) by 2030. By the end of 2022, 93.5 per cent of Canadians had access to high-speed Internet.

According to Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada in 2018, 54.7 per cent of Saskatchewan households had that level of access, the lowest among the provinces. As of June 2023, 81.5 per cent of Saskatchewan households have high-speed internet access—that’s an increase of 26.8 per cent over four and a half years. Saskatchewan still has the lowest connectivity among the provinces, but there has been obvious progress.

Money matters
So, what does this mean? What does high-speed internet connectivity mean for the economy? Answer: a lot.

The 2016 study, Exploring the Relationship Between Broadband and Economic Growth by Michael Minges, showed that GDP increases one to two percent for every 10 per cent increase in broadband penetration.

In 2023, Saskatchewan’s economy was worth $81.818 billion. Increasing our internet penetration by 10 per cent could add $1.63 billion to the provincial GDP.

Connected Saskatchewan

Verona Thibault, chief engagement officer at the Saskatchewan Economic Development Alliance (SEDA), is a major advocate for connecting the entire province to high-speed internet. In our story in 2020, she noted that internet connectivity should be seen the same way as rural electrification was in the 1950s. The internet should be seen as a utility like power and telephone service, and treated as such.

Since then, SEDA launched Connected Saskatchewan, an initiative to help internet connectivity in Saskatchewan. In its first two phases, the initiative focused on helping communities with digital readiness and digital enablement. It encouraged local governments to consider their role in digital transformation and built awareness of what technology can offer communities socio-economically.

They also formed the Saskatchewan Broadband Action Committee (SBAC), a cross-sector and community-based group of provincial, local, and Indigenous organizations and networks to address the long-standing challenges around broadband, and push for direct action to achieve “broadband infrastructure parity by 2024, and exceed the CRTC standard by 2027, for all Saskatchewan residents, regardless of location.”

Current state
In October, SBAC released its call for the provincial government to formally adopt SBAC’s Broadband Development & Investment Framework.

“It is our hope that the Province will embrace this strategy and invite the Committee to work directly with the appropriate Ministries and government officials on ‘how’ to move forward collectively,” said Jay Meyer, the committee co-chair with the release on Oct. 17.

SBAC says that adoption and endorsement of the Framework would create necessary “building blocks” for change, including:

  • the establishment of a broadband coordination & planning community-based office;
  • creation of a $3.0M to $4.0M regional community capacity grant; and,
  • commitment to a $50M market incentive co-funding infrastructure grant.

The committee also pointed out that the province is still seeing the lowest per capita investment from the federal government when it comes to connectivity, and that the recent Federal Auditor’s Report noted Saskatchewan’s “lagging position in terms of services for “rural and remote communities and First Nations.”

Despite significant investments by telecommunications firms like SaskTel, FlexNetworks, Access Communications and others, and the work of SEDA and SBAC, the digital divide remains in many parts of Saskatchewan.

Looking ahead
SEDA’s Connected Saskatchewan initiative, along with SBAC’s advocacy and recommendations, signifies a step in the right direction. The call for the provincial government to adopt SBAC’s Broadband Development & Investment Framework demonstrates a proactive approach to bridging the gap. The proposed measures, including the establishment of a broadband coordination office and substantial financial commitments, present a comprehensive strategy for change. It is crucial for all stakeholders, including government bodies, private enterprises, and community organizations, to collaborate effectively, ensuring that every Saskatchewan resident, regardless of location, has equal access to high-speed internet.

While progress has been made, the journey to achieve comprehensive internet connectivity for all Saskatchewan residents is ongoing. The concerted efforts of organizations, combined with supportive government policies and increased investments, are essential to realizing the vision of a digitally connected Saskatchewan. Bridging the digital divide is not just a matter of technological advancement. It is a fundamental step toward a more equitable and prosperous future for the entire province.