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OPINION | It's time to act on rural internet access

Our internet depends on many intricate layers of wired and wireless infrastructure that were built to handle predictable flows in human activity. But with millions of Canadians working and learning from home, these peaks will inevitably be longer, more frequent and less predictable.

We need to work together to make sure we don’t leave our fellow citizens behind

As we work from home to limit the spread of COVID-19, it is easy to forget that hundreds of thousands of people in the country lack basic, high-speed access. (John Robertson/CBC)

This column is an opinion from Dr. Barb Carra, the president and CEO of Cybera.

(CBC)

As millions of Canadians turn to the internet for connection, information and work in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, it is easy to forget that hundreds of thousands of people in the country lack basic, high-speed access.

Many of us don't necessarily think of connectivity as a finite resource, nor consider the limitations of the country's network infrastructure. But as we all adjust to our new physical-distance reality, rural Canadians are feeling the sting of Canada's "digital divide."   

Our internet depends on many intricate layers of wired and wireless infrastructure that were built to handle predictable flows in human activity.

In a typical week, Sundays and Mondays are when the greatest number of people are online concurrently. In a year, it's Christmas and Thanksgiving. Networks are built with these peaks in mind.

Slower speeds, higher costs

But now, with millions of Canadians working and learning from home, these peaks will inevitably be longer, more frequent and less predictable, potentially resulting in lower speeds and additional costs.

Cybera operates Alberta's research and education network, which connects all 26 of the province's post-secondary institutions to universities and researchers across Canada and around the world.

Since physical distancing orders went into effect in mid-March, we have seen a drastic two-thirds decrease in our network use on campuses, from an average of 30-40 gigabits per second (Gbps), down to less than 10 Gbps.

This is less than what we see during the summer break. 

It's safe to assume that this bandwidth, along with all the other regular office and commercial traffic, is now being dispersed over residential networks. 

The impact on consumers

What does this mean for consumers?

Traditionally, internet service providers manage network usage increases by either slowing down connection speeds or charging extra for additional bandwidth used.

They can also ask streaming services to reduce the quality of content being transmitted (which is why Netflix and YouTube announced last week they would temporarily lower their video quality in Canada, reducing their data traffic by up to 25 per cent). 

So, should Canadian consumers be worried about lower quality internet and more overage charges? Frustratingly, the answer depends on where you live. 

Today, roughly 16 per cent of Canadian households do not have access to a broadband internet connection that the federal government deems sufficient to engage in the modern digital economy. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

While Canada's largest telcos — Bell, Telus, Rogers and Shaw — announced that they have temporarily suspended data caps on home internet connections, they have not applied this to all their internet plans.

For example, Bell has offered an additional 10 GB and a $10 credit on their wireless hub devices, but this is a miniscule increase for the average family. Meanwhile, most smaller service providers operating in rural areas have not been able to offer extra bandwidth to consumers.

In rural communities, fixed-wireless is a common internet setup. This type of connection offers a cost-effective solution for residents, businesses and internet service providers in rural areas, because it doesn't require the installation of wires or cables to each home.

Problems likely to increase

However, for the people who live and work there, it does mean the cost of bandwidth is higher than DSL, and there are more frequent disruptions in service.

These problems are likely to increase as entire families try to work and learn from home, especially as distance learning demands good connectivity.  

Today, roughly 16 per cent of Canadian households do not have access to a broadband internet connection that the federal government deems sufficient to engage in the modern digital economy (50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload).

In rural areas, that number rises to 63 per cent. In many areas, residents rely on local schools and libraries to access the internet.

Pop up initiatives, like Wi-Fi hotspots in parking lots, are being set up on campuses across Canada to allow students and teachers to access the connectivity they need during the pandemic. But sitting in your car to do your homework is not an ideal solution.

Addressing this issue will require significant public efforts in both the short and the long term.

Governments must act aggressively

While all levels of government should act aggressively to help rural communities upgrade their network infrastructure, in the short term, provincial governments must work with service providers to subsidize the increasing costs of bandwidth.

Currently, provincial and federal governments fund or subsidize a few affordable internet plans for low-income families, including the Connecting Families program, and Telus's Internet for Good.

But these programs are limited in who can access them. Canadians in rural communities need broader support. 

Like it did with the telephone in the 20th century, the Canadian government recently acknowledged that internet access is an essential service.

The extraordinary ways in which Canadian communities have come together online for work, essential information and mental health speaks to the lifeline that the internet can be — for those who have access.

Now, more than ever, we need to work together to make sure we don't leave our fellow citizens behind.


This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Dr. Barb Carra is the president and CEO of Cybera, a technology-neutral organization responsible for driving Alberta’s economic growth through the use of digital technology.

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