No connectivity: the internet 'blackout zone' that is rural Canada

With high-speed internet still a pipe dream for many rural Canadians, is it time for broadband to be considered a utility?

It might be time for high-speed internet to be considered a utility, says one consumer

Kevin LeGris has spent 10 years trying to get a reliable high-speed internet connection at his Ottawa Valley home. He tried to fix the problem by building his own antenna with a hockey stick. (Joe Fiorino/CBC)

An Ottawa Valley family's monumental struggle to get broadband internet shows that a significant geographic digital divide still exists in Canada, even for those who aren't very far from urban centres. 

"I live an hour from our nation's capital, 10 minutes from the town of Renfrew on a busy highway," says Kevin LeGris.

"I'm in a blackout zone with no hope of getting high-speed internet."

LeGris, his wife and their six children live on a pastoral patch of 60 hectares about 14 kilometres southwest of Renfrew, Ontario.

He's close enough to the town of 8,500 to have a Renfrew mailing address. But in the 10 years they've lived there, LeGris and his family have not been able to get a reliable broadband internet connection.

Not for lack of trying.

LeGris says Bell is the main service provider in his area but Bell told him his address isn't eligible for a DSL (Digital Subscriber Line), which is one of two ways most Canadians get internet, the other being cable.

He looked into a fixed wireless connection, where service providers use radio signals to send data, but he's just slightly too far away from both of the nearest signal towers — one on either side of his property.

A local company told him it could give him a fixed wireless connection but he'd have to build his own 20-metre tower on his property, at his own expense. 

He tried a satellite connection but says it was unstable and borderline unusable.

So he currently has a cellular internet connection. 

Try a hockey stick?

To get a better cell signal, LeGris used a hockey stick to mount an antenna called a Yagi on his chimney. It worked OK, but every time the wind picked up a little, he had to climb onto his roof to make adjustments.

He's since added a cell signal booster, which typically costs about $600 but which he bought used on Kijiji for $250.

He pays $140 per month for his internet plan. For that he gets 100 gigabytes (GB) of data per month. With his jury-rigged antenna setup, he gets download speeds that top out at about 3 megabits per second (Mbps).
For $140 per month, LeGris gets internet speeds that no one in a big city would find acceptable. (Joe Fiorino/CBC)

"And that's max," LeGris said. "I actually did a test in the house before you got here and I got 1 [Mbps]."

To put LeGris' plan in perspective, consider the ISP used by this big-city reporter has DSL plans that start with 300 GB of data and download speeds of 15 Mbps for $40 per month. 

Most people living in an urban environment would consider LeGris' internet to be not just hugely expensive but also barely serviceable.

"You can surf the web, for the most part, but you're not watching videos," he says. 

"I don't believe my kids even know what Netflix is. We haven't crossed that path in the hopes that they don't demand it from us."

Beyond Netflix, LeGris says his children need internet for school, where many of their assignments are now done in the cloud using Google Docs. 

"I'm a little concerned for my kids — they don't have the same technology that other people have," LeGris says.
"It [the internet] is going to be a huge part of their life, and it's very important that they get to experience it like everyone else."

The many missing out

According to the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, broadband internet access is universal in urban areas, but only 85 per cent of Canadians living in rural areas have access. There are six million Canadians living in rural areas, which means nearly one million people don't have broadband access.

This despite the fact that in 2011, the CRTC said it expected all Canadians to have access to broadband speeds of at least 5 Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads by 2015.

Even with those targets, the CRTC's definition of "high-speed" internet is much lower than those of other countries around the world.

In the U.S., for example, the Federal Communications Commission defines high-speed internet as 25 Mbps. 

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities says Americans have much better internet access outside urban areas than Canadians do. 
Clark Somerville, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, says everyone should pay a little more for their internet so that rural Canadians can have broadband access. (CBC)

"We are getting better," says FCM president Clark Somerville. "But overall we still need to get high-speed internet access into rural Canada."

Somerville says Canada's geography and topography present greater challenges to connectivity. Rather than have companies pay for the cost, he suggests a surcharge on everyone's internet bill.

So who pays?

"Probably the best thing we can do is to have basic internet service being put down as a basic service option under the CRTC, where everyone would pay a little bit each month that would help expand into a wider area for the greater good," Somerville says.   

LeGris has a different solution.

"If the schools are going to start demanding that our kids use internet, if places of business are going to start demanding that their employees can work from home but they need internet to do so, it seems like it's a utility," he says.

"It seems like it's something that the government should be if not supplying, at least guaranteeing that every household has it available."


Aaron Saltzman

Senior Reporter, Consumer Affairs

Aaron Saltzman is CBC's Senior Business Reporter. Tips/Story ideas always welcome.


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