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Coronavirus has forced Albertans online but rural communities are feeling left behind

While many are logging on to stay connected online, many Albertans are being left behind in the course of the coronavirus pandemic.

At least one rural family says they're frustrated trying to log-on to work, school from home

Kieran, Joah and Naya Randall are home, accessing school remotely in Twin Butte, Alta. Christy Newcomen-Randall says the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for better rural internet access. (Submitted by Christy Newcomen-Randall)

While many are logging on to stay connected online, many Albertans are being left behind in the course of the coronavirus pandemic.

In Twin Butte, Christy Newcomen-Randall said it took years of troubleshooting to get a reliable internet plan to fit her family's needs.

But now she's home with her husband who needs a connection for work and three children all trying to access class online.

"It's just frustrating," Newcomen-Randall said, "Knowing that, you know, kids who live in town or have availability of better internet. They're at more of an advantage than, you know, kids that live in rural areas."

Because of where they live, the best option so far has been a wireless internet hub — which means connecting to the internet over cell networks. These hubs are more common in rural settings because they don't require the same infrastructure that fibre or cable would.

We haven't moved fast enough … we're still leaving a lot of Canadians behind across the country.- Barb Carra, Cybera

But just like a cellphone connection, hubs aren't always reliable because they depend on a line of sight from the infrastructure delivering that signal. 

And, unlike other forms of internet service during the COVID-19 pandemic, some users with these services haven't had their usage caps eliminated.

"Providing unlimited usage to all Turbo Hub, Turbo Stick and MiFi customers would put wireless network performance at risk during a critical time for Canadians," Bell's website reads.

Christy Newcomen-Randall is hoping the government and community partners will start looking at both short and long-term solutions to improve rural internet access. (Submitted by Christy Newcomen-Randall )

Newcomen-Randall said they were already paying a lot for their internet before the pandemic hit. 

On the family cellphone plan they have unlimited data, but they get ramped-down speeds once they hit a 40-gigabyte threshold — speeds that would remind urban users of the pre-high-speed internet era, where movies could take hours to download and streaming is out of the question. Once that kicks in, the kids won't even be able to load a photo in a timely fashion, let alone use Google Hangouts or other online-learning tools.

She said now, if it comes to it, her family will be hopping into a car, devices in hand, to snag some wireless in Pincher Creek, more than 20 kilometres away.

"I'm hoping it doesn't come to that though," she said. 

Most rural communities don't have adequate access

In 2016, the CRTC declared broadband internet a basic telecommunications service. The national regulator ordered internet providers work toward boosting internet service and speeds in rural areas.

The CRTC created a $750-million fund to partner with companies with a goal to close the so-called digital divide. In 10 to 15 years, the CRTC strives to give all Canadians access to internet with speeds of 50 megabits (Mbps) per second for downloads and 10 Mbps for uploads.

In 2016, roughly 18 per cent of Canadians didn't have access to those speeds or data.

Currently, 60 per cent of rural communities don't have adequate internet access, according to the CRTC.

Barb Carra is the president and CEO of Cybera, an Alberta-based not-for-profit overseeing the development of Alberta's cyber-infrastructure. 

She says the COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting a known issue: cities are fibre and infrastructure rich, and there is a lot of choice to meet consumers' needs but outside of city centres choice is limited.

Now, more than ever, Carra said connectivity is important, especially as distance learning becomes the new normal during the pandemic.

And in more rural settings, the smaller providers don't have access to the resources and cash flow it takes to scale up quickly.

"We haven't moved fast enough … we're still leaving a lot of Canadians behind across the country," Carra said. "It's almost a call to action. If there's ever a time to actually make some changes. You know, you never waste a crisis."

Carra said now is the time for everyone to get involved in some short and long-term solutions, government and community alike. She said funding needs to be opened up, and there need to be measures to get people online and connected.

"You'll see things like parking lot WiFi, initiatives pop up across the province … allowing students to go to parking lots and quickly download what they need to their devices, and then take it home and do their homework," Carra said "Those aren't long-term solutions." 

Newcomen-Randall said she wants the government to step in and help families like hers.

"It's really frustrating like, with everything that's going on, right now with kids being home, my husband working from home, you know, the fear of getting sick and all that, like, it just I don't feel like this should be on our list of stress — but it is."

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