Regular readers will know that I try and keep an eye on rural issues, reports & initiatives and that I do so largely via information available on the internet, I had though until now that I was reasonably up to date with such things. I was wrong! In communicating with the RVN and with Samara (the democracy research folk) I became aware of The Rural Ontario Institute and this in turn lead me to their resources and links pages where I found that not only are there more than 100 Rural Research Centers, Networks & Organizations listed there (with links to each) but that there are also dozens of 'reports' on rural issues listed that I did not know about or have not read.
My first reaction was 'Thats great, so many folks trying to get a handle on rural issues' but then after a little while and visiting a few of the links I began to think 'How is it with all these organizations and reports that rural communities are still going down the tubes, how is it that rural issues are still all but ignored by upper levels of government?' Of the (admittedly very small percentage) reports that I have read and organizations that I have checked out I see very little difference in either their objectives or their conclusions, each has a slightly different perspective or focus but the similarities are striking. In fact the words Voices, Vision, Collaborate and Communicate appear in so many of the report titles and organizational outlines that its easy to get mixed up between them all, but are those latter two things happening? At this point I am not convinced of it!
The other thing that struck me was the difficulty of 'engaging' the rural community at large in the studies and indeed making the rural population aware of such things. Many of the reports are based upon 'focus groups' and meetings held in a very limited number of (usually small urban) locations, I wonder then exactly how representative such studies are, not that I substantially disagree with the conclusions and recommendations of the few that I have read. It is for this reason that I believe we must engage rural communities on line where location is less of an issue.
Folks that have read some of my other posts here (and elsewhere) will know that I think that the internet has a immense potential to both enhance and develop business opportunities in rural Canada but to also to allow rural residents to interact without the need to travel, often considerable distances, to attend meetings or have input into community initiatives or decisions. It is by no means the magic bullet but is, I believe, going to be a major key in maintaining our rural towns, villages and farms as viable entity’s and not just bedroom communities for some large urban center upon which we are increasing forced to rely upon for jobs & services.
With that in mind here are a few extracts from some reports and my thoughts on this specific subject..
I could go on about the availability and cost of High Speed Broadband Internet in rural areas (and that is still a major issue in many areas), how it is now almost essential for any business to be 'connected' and how so many 'service' industries with the right infrastructure no longer need to be physically located in those expensive urban office towers but, in this post at least, I will finish up by concentrating on the possibility’s within the social and community aspect of internet communications.
First cost & affordability
“It has been noted in several circumstances that an acceptable price for high-speed residential connectivity is less than $50 per month, any higher than that and the demand for services falls off dramatically. The economics of supply and demand is such that suppliers (ISPs) are not willing to supply the service in some areas as their costs are greater than that $50 / month maximum fee clients are willing to pay” (And many charge additional fees for usage volumes) “We should not assume that once broadband is available, users will be able to afford the service.”
“The vast majority (97%) of households in the top income quartile, those with incomes of $87,000 or more, had home Internet access. This compares with a rate of 54% of households in the lowest quartile, those with incomes of $30,000 or less.” This report also says that those outside major population areas have 10% 'less access', with 1 in 5 of the Canadian population 'not having access from home'!
Secondly, how are we going to get the rural community, those that are on line, to use it as an alternative means of communications within both the local community and the broader rural population. There seems to be a real reluctance by many, both urban & rural, to 'interact' on line, thousands use it to get information but relativity few join in on online forums and discussions. Why is that, limited forum choices, technically challenged, privacy issues, or simply not interested? I dont know, but I do know we must 'get over it' and start communicating with each other if we are to save both our rural communities AND our democracy!
“The use of community portals has been identified as being an important contributor to the local economy. These ‘portals’ should be set to view local stores, organizations and businesses with the information well-organized and up to date. In the instance of portals, the responsibility for updates may have to be delegated to an individual / organization.” Which is exactly why I am so interested in the RVN initiative in that one of their goals is to (provide / develop?) a “Web portal designed to foster a living ‘Rural Voices Network’ to facilitate community engagement and collaboration through online forums.”
In my view the provision of an over arching web site providing a set of pre formated information pages and open interactive forums for rural Ontario with the availability of separate but integrated pages available for those communities who wish to join would go a long way to knit both the local community and the whole of rural Ontario together. A one stop 'Portal' for rural Ontarian's and possibly in the future for all rural Canadians.
This post already being rather lengthy I will expand upon MY vision of how such a site could be arranged and what it should incorporate should such web space become available in future posts.