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Credit: stuz-photography.com

Patrick Shannon, a photographer based in Haida Gwaii, wants better connection for the coast

Lightning-fast 5G Internet is on its way. The question is how long it takes to reach the communities off B.C.’s beaten path

Self-driving cars. Augmented reality glasses. Surgeries performed remotely.

On The RadarFifth-generation wireless connection is coming, and with it technologies that are the stuff of science fiction. With broadband speeds estimated to be 100 times faster than the current 4G service, 5G is poised to connect billions of devices around the world—phones, watches, computers, fridges, even clothing—in real time, opening endless possibilities for the Internet of Things.

In March, the Government of Canada announced that it, along with the governments of Ontario and Quebec and five global technology companies, will invest $400 million to create a corridor of linked 5G research hubs. The ENCQOR project—Evolution of Networked Services through a Corridor in Quebec and Ontario for Research and Innovation—will give businesses in Canada’s two largest provinces the opportunity to experiment with 5G technology to unlock innovation and economic growth.

Meanwhile, out west, B.C. is working to bring its outlying communities up to speed with better, more reliable Internet service. Days before the ENCQOR news hit the media, the Ministry of Citizens’ Services, responsible for information technology, announced additional public and private funding to improve connectivity in rural and remote areas of the province, never mind that new infrastructure will be required once 5G becomes available.

The woes of slow, low-bandwidth Internet are well known to Patrick Shannon, a Haida Gwaii–based photographer and the founder of InnoNative, a graphic design and videography firm specializing in branding for Indigenous organizations.

“It was a big challenge, trying to do digital work in a rural community,” says Shannon, who spent 10 years working with a high-speed connection in Vancouver before returning to the islands. Sometimes he mailed his clients their high-resolution files on USB drives because he couldn’t transmit them by email.

Shannon, who won Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2015 at the BC Aboriginal Business Awards, was paying between $300 and $500 a month for Internet, and depending on the time of day, it “wasn’t even usable,” he recalls. “I had to do most of my work in the middle of the night.”

Shannon joined the board of GwaiiTel, which manages the Internet infrastructure on the islands, helping the company apply for grants that ultimately allowed it to install underground fibre links in more populous areas of Haida Gwaii. Remote areas still struggle with slow, unreliable connections and low bandwidth.

B.C.’s geography has played a role in hindering rural access to broadband Internet. Telecommunications giants like the Big Three—BCE, Rogers Communications and Telus—didn’t have the business case to invest millions to dig trenches and lay fibre lines through vast, difficult terrain to bring service to small communities, explains Jinny Sims, B.C.’s Minister of Citizens’ Services.

“In places where they have fibre, we have seen amazing things happen in supporting traditional industries and participating in the new digital economy,” Sims says.

When fibre to the home was rolled out in Tumbler Ridge in 2012, Steven Tory, an IT consultant, founded Dino High Tech Solutions, offering computer servicing, web design and tech support. “I would never have thought about running a tech company in this community when we didn’t have fast or reliable Internet,” Tory remarks.

The town of 3,000 people now has what Tory calls an “acceptable level” of Internet service, but the delay in getting broadband caused “a massive problem with digital literacy.” He points out, “You have to have a solid grasp on technology, otherwise you’ll get left behind.”

According to industry experts, we’re a few years away from a full 5G wireless rollout. A network of new base stations needs to be built across the country to distribute the 5G signal, which uses a different frequency than current technologies. Sims acknowledges the province is committed to working with the federal government and private industry to stay on top of future technological developments so rural and remote B.C. doesn’t fall behind again—for example, when it’s time to install 5G infrastructure. The Ministry of Education has also established a working group to identify opportunities to improve connectivity in public libraries.

In the interim, the ENCQOR project could have a B.C. component. A spokesperson for the federal Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development replied in an email that the 5G test corridor in Ontario and Quebec may eventually include companies across the country, which could access the infrastructure virtually.

When 5G arrives, it will expand employment opportunities in the tech industry in rural and urban areas, says Karl Swannie, CEO of Victoria-based Echosec, a social media geofencing platform. Swannie has a property on Saturna in the Gulf Islands and would love to work there, but the island does not have the connectivity speed and bandwidth he requires. With 5G, not only would he be able to work from Saturna or anywhere else, he says he wouldn’t hesitate to hire employees who live in rural areas as long as they can connect to the high-speed network. “If they have the skills and the talent, I would bring them on in a heartbeat.”