Rural Areas can Grow Strong on the Information Highway

Agriculture, Commentary, Robert Sopuck, Rural

Boy, the world has changed for those of us who live in the woods. We still have clean air, open spaces, decent roads, a low crime rate, better primary health care than city folk and better schools. Now we also have access to all of the world’s information via the Internet.

More about that in a minute, but first let’s gather round the campfire, and talk about the “good old days.” You know, when we walked five miles to school through two feet of snow and uphill both ways. Bear with me because this is important.

In the late 1970’s (the Dark Ages), our farm shared a “party line” Telephone with eight neighbours. It was communication of sorts. But when you wanted to call out, you were likely to be greeted with the stock phrase, “Line busy.” You kept trying until you heard a dial tone. You’d quickly call out, and shoo away other people in the same manner when you heard the telltale “click” of interruption. As for calling home, forget it. If any one of the eight were on the line, which was most of the time, you’d get a busy signal.

Our “ring” was “one long and two short”, so when you heard the first ring you’d stop, listen for your variation and, if it came, make a mad dash for the phone. To top it off, everyone’s phone rang at everyone’s house, so bells became the order of the day. And that system didn’t provide the Internet, voice mail, e-mail, or faxes, all of which I have today.

What does that mean for rural areas? It gives us as much capacity for processing as cities. Since information is power, we are now empowered to participate in the world. We can organize politically, keep abreast of government policy, check grain and livestock prices, get new ideas, and read every paper in the Sun chain. The largest city libraries hold a small fraction of the gigantic almanac of search engines.

High-speed Internet access, now rolling into rural areas via satellite and DSL (digital subscriber line) service, places the countryside on a level playing field with big cities. By 2002, the MTS plans to cover the province with its high-speed service. For those of us outside of rural communities satellites can deliver high-speed Internet access now for a nominal hook-up fee.

Rural areas are already using these technologies to attract people from the so-called “information industries.” The Friesen publishing enterprise in Altona operates more efficiently than its competitors in Winnipeg or Toronto. But the exodus has just begun. High-value jobholders like consulting engineers, stockbrokers, designers, artists, writers, artisans, and financial planners, would love to ply their trades from rural Manitoba. It beats the gridlock at Confusion Corner flat. We have low cost real estate, beautiful landscapes, safe communities and wonderful outdoor recreation, without the intellectual isolation that used to characterize rural areas.

Those who are seeking a lifestyle option different from big cities have already started to move and many others need only a nudge. The combination of a high quality of life and the ability to conduct their businesses from a rural location is alluring. The spread of video-conference software cancels out the cities’ face-to-face advantage. Thriving rural communities provide a great complement to cities like Winnipeg and Brandon.

By the way, you can always spot country people by watching them make a phone call. Like me, they listen to see if the line is busy before they dial. That old-fashioned habit speaks volumes about how quickly the information revolution is changing the world. Remote living is the style of the future.