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Rural and remote communities are often behind with technological advancement when, arguably, they have the most to gain, says Norman Ragetlie, executive director of the Rural Ontario Institute.Ahmadmahmood/Getty Images/iStockphoto

A drone flies over an apple orchard in southeastern Ontario, gathering data on everything from water levels and crop yield to impending pest infestations.

The data is then transmitted to the cloud for processing, once it’s within range of a wireless internet connection. That is, unless the drone is within one of the few but growing areas with 5G technology.

With its high speed and low latency, or lag, 5G allows the drone to transmit the high-resolution images to drone provider InDro Robotics Inc. in real-time.

“With 5G, we could send that all while the drone is still in flight, so we can start processing [the data] while the drone is still up there,” says Philip Reece, founder and chief executive officer of Vancouver-based InDro Robotics, which provides drone and other data collection and monitoring services for a range of industries from agriculture and mining to infrastructure and emergency services.

The 5G-powered data helps clients react immediately to what’s happening in their operations. For example, with an apple farm, the ability to prevent a pest infestation is often the difference between crop success and failure.

“If the farmer doesn’t see the data for a week because it takes us that long, that’s a week … lost,” Mr. Reece says.

InDro Robotics is already seeing its U.S. clientele access 5G, but the technology is so far limited in Canada, Mr. Reece says, especially in less populous areas.

Rural and remote communities are often behind with technological advancement when, arguably, they have the most to gain, says Norman Ragetlie, executive director of the Rural Ontario Institute.

In addition to agritech applications that boost crop yields, Mr. Ragetlie says 5G has the potential to expand services and reduce costs for health care, education and government services.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for better connectivity across the country, including rural communities. With more people working from home and many looking to relocate to more affordable smaller communities, Mr. Ragetlie believes the case has never been stronger for investment in rural 5G infrastructure.

“There are a lot of telemedicine applications, which can be very important for remote and rural areas. I think the same could be said now for education, especially in the context of the COVID experience, where people are working from home and fighting with their kids about who’s got to file homework,” he says with a laugh.

Still, there are undeniable challenges with adopting 5G technology in a rural setting, including its relatively short range. Mr. Ragetlie believes governments need to invest in the infrastructure and negotiate agreements with private companies using public spectrum – the invisible radio frequencies that wireless signals travel over – to cover “the last mile.”

He also says the deployment of 5G and other next-generation technologies must be available and affordable in rural parts of the country.

“For rural communities, it’s really a question of missed opportunities,” Mr. Ragetlie says. “For example, think of the development of smart grids that can support AI [artificial intelligence] and remote vehicle transport and things like that. Rural places are going to fall behind if they don’t have the internet structure to support those kinds of uses.”

Canada is starting to make progress with 5G, says Robert Ghiz, chief executive officer of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA). He points to the federal government’s current spectrum expansion, which aims to provide a faster highway for 5G data connections and improve rural connectivity.

“There is some 5G in Canada today ... but it’s going to be an evolution over the next one to 10 years,” says Mr. Ghiz, a former premier of Prince Edward Island who is familiar with the challenges of rural connectivity – and its potential.

It will take a massive investment of approximately $26-billion to build out the 5G network in this country, Mr. Ghiz says. He also points to CWTA studies suggesting the technology has the potential to add upwards of $40-billion to GDP and create 250,000 jobs.

CWTA members are doing their best to connect more Canadians, Mr. Ghiz says, and there have been some major announcements in recent months from all of the major providers about expanding networks in urban, rural and remote areas of the country.

There are areas of the country where it doesn’t make economic sense for the private sector, but federal, provincial and municipal governments have stepped up to partner with telecommunications players, he says.

“It is a challenge. Let’s face it, we live in a very large country with a very low-density population,” says Mr. Ghiz.