London

Expensive, unreliable internet: Life in London's broadband dead zones

A lack of access to reliable high-speed internet isn't just a problem in rural Ontario. Meet some Londoners who live inside the city limits, but who can't video chat or stream movies without a whopping bill.

Even inside city limits, there are spots with no access to broadband Internet

Chris Rudi operates her mattress business from an area of Fanshawe Park Road with no broadband internet service. To avoid sky-high data charges, she takes her cellphone to a breakfast place with free WiFi. (Submitted by Chris Rudi )

Londoner Jim Gillies would like to video chat with his mother more than just a few minutes a day, but he can't.

His mother is 97 years old and lives in a long-term care home but her age isn't the reason why they can't have long video chats. She has no trouble using FaceTime on her iPad. 

The issue is that Gillies lives in a pocket of London with no access to broadband internet service. And while he's in a rural area — Westdel Bourne between Southdale Road West and Longwoods Road — it's inside London city limits.

Gillies gets his internet through Bell's mobile wireless internet service. He uses a kind of router called a turbo hub that connects to nearby WiFi towers. The connection is slow, the number of connections each tower can handle is limited and he's frequently disconnected.

But the real problem is the cost. The data charges mean his monthly bill regularly exceeds $400. His bill includes satellite TV, which is part of his product bundle, but Gillies says the bulk of his bill is due to data charges. 

'Extremely frustrating'

Unless Gillies keeps his video chat with his mother down to a minimum, his bill will skyrocket. 

"Thirty minutes on a video chat could cost me $30," he said. "It's extremely frustrating." 

The steep data charges mean downloading a movie is out of the question. If he's reading the news online and lands on any website with graphics or video that auto plays, he has to log off right away. He was asked to take part in a recent video chat and had to head to a relative's house to do it. 

He estimates there are about 25 houses on his stretch of Westdel Bourne in the same boat. 

"I feel bad for the kids who live on this street, and parents who are home-schooling," he said.

Gillies has tried for years to get broadband service to his 15-acre hobby farm. He's pestered politicians and internet service providers without success.

Bell sent CBC News a statement in response to questions about Gillies's service. 

It says Gillies has been receiving "additional data usage and a bill credit for his turbo hub mobile wireless internet service. 

"We've done that for all of our turbo hub customers to help out throughout the COVID-19 situation. Mr. Gillies has already received significant additional credits," the statement reads.

The statement didn't provide a dollar figure for the discounts Gillies is receiving. A spokesperson said Gillies may be able to get improved service through a different product called wireless home internet service.

However, a technician came to his house Monday and it turns out he's too far away from the closest tower (in Shedden) for the wireless home internet service to be an option for him. 

COVID-19 has raised the stakes

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the focus on Canada's so-called digital divide. But the problem isn't limited to rural areas. There are other small pockets inside London city limits where video chatting, streaming audio and even watching a YouTube video are impossible or expensive. 

The CRTC has created a $750-million fund to partner with companies and get high-speed internet to those without it. The goal is to give everyone in Canada access to internet with speeds of 50 megabits (Mbps) per second for downloads and 10 Mbps for uploads. 

The city of London has contributed $690,000 to the SWIFT program which joins government money with private service providers in an effort bring broadband internet services to areas that don't have it. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Locally, the SWIFT program (Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology) helps deliver projects that bring high-speed internet to those who don't have it. The projects follow a request-for-proposal process with the cost split between the province, the federal government and the service provider. Often municipalities also kick in.

An RFP to bring $2.8 million in broadband infrastructure to London was issued in March with a Nov. 6 submission deadline. The city's contribution is $690,000. Which geographic areas of the city will get the internet service? That depends on what's included in the RFP submissions. 

Even with the 75 per cent discount, the service provider will likely target their submission where it will maximize customer sign ups down the road. 

Matt Daley is the city's director of information technology services. 

He said partnerships like the SWIFT program are essential to bringing service to the city's internet dead zones, but they are limited by what comes through the RFP submissions. 

"Is it good for everyone? Is everyone happy with the outcome, not always," he said. 

Still waiting

Meanwhile, Londoners like Chris Rudi are still waiting.

She runs a home-based mattress business InBetween Dreams in another pocket of London with no broadband: The north side of Fanshawe Park Road west of Hyde Park Road. 

She uses Rogers to connect to a WiFi tower in a service that is similar to the one Gillies uses. 

And like Gillies, she has to endure spotty service and expensive data charges. A few extra emails can noticeably drive up her bill. 

"If I were to go online and stream an hour-long show, it would cost me close to $1,000," she said. "It's a challenge running a business with really no internet."

A spokesperson for Rogers contests this figure, pointing out that streaming  an HD movie would use about three gigabytes of data. The spokesperson said Rogers offers plans with the type of service Rudi has for $120 that include 50 gigabytes of data. 

Coun. Anna Hopkins's west-end ward includes the strip of Westdel Bourne where Gillies's lives. She's heard from Gillies and plenty of his neighbours about the issue. 

She's hoping the SWIFT program and others can help what she sees as an essential service to what she calls "orphaned areas." 

"I'm always amazed at how costly it can be for some people to have internet, there is just a fairness issue here," said Hopkins. "It's accessibility that we should all have in an urban city."

Clarifications

  • This story has been updated to include information from a Rogers spokesperson regarding the cost of downloading a movie using an internet plan that uses the LTE network instead of a cable connection.
    May 28, 2020 4:55 PM ET

About the Author

Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.

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