In the time of COVID-19, slow Internet is more than an annoyance

Poor Internet service in rural areas of Canada is causing problems for municipal councils trying to move their meetings online to achieve maximum physical distancing during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Poor service means online council meetings, video chats with family aren't an option

Poor Internet service in rural areas of Canada is causing problems for municipal councils trying to move their meetings online to achieve maximum physical distancing during the COVID-19 outbreak. (iStock)

In the face of a worsening pandemic, the move to shift municipal council meetings online certainly makes good sense.

Local politicians can address the unfolding crisis while they maintain physical distancing health officials are calling for to curb the spread of COVID-19. 

But what if the bandwidth — particularly in rural areas — isn't there to support video conferencing? 

On Tuesday, Middlesex County held its first-ever online meeting, but when Thames Centre Deputy Mayor Kelly Elliott tried to log in from home, she couldn't connect.

"Unfortunately, I had to leave my house in order to do it," she said. "I had to go into town, into our council chambers in order to participate and get a reliable connection." 

Thames Centre, located just east of London, Ont.,  is one of seven municipalities with representation on the country government, which serves a wider region. 

Poor internet service in rural areas like Middlesex County means online council meetings and video chats with family aren't an option. (Supplied)

The bad connection wasn't caused by a problem with Elliott's home computer or faulty software. It was the lack of reliable high-speed Internet in the rural area where she lives near Thorndale.

So Elliott quickly drove to Thames Centre's office in Dorchester and used her computer in council chambers to connect. Thames Centre Mayor Alison Warwick did the same, and for the same reason. 

"In order to do a video conference with good quality you need 10 megabits a second and two megabits per upload," said Elliott. "Some of us are getting less than one. So having a video conference is impossible for us."

For Elliott, the incident highlights a long-standing issue that in the midst of a pandemic has blossomed into much more than a mere annoyance. She sees the lack of broadband access as a health and safety issue with most Canadians locked down at home in need of online access to the latest COVID-19 news. 

The lack of access to video conferencing in rural areas is also a problem. Video chat services like Zoom, Skype and Google hangouts have suddenly become crucial tools to combat loneliness and isolation with so many Canadians under orders to stay inside and separate from others.

It's not a new problem. The CRTC has created a $750-million fund to partner with companies to close the so-called digital divide. 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. 

According to the CRTC numbers from 2017, only 37 per cent of rural households in Canada had access to 50/10 Mbps, compared with 97 per cent of urban homes. 

Since then, the numbers in rural communities have edged up slightly to almost 41 per cent of rural households with 50/10 Mbps. It seems unlikely the CRTC will hit its goal of 90 per cent coverage of 50/10 by the end of 2021.

Municipalities have been pushing the issue

It's a problem Ray Orb knows all about. 

He serves as reeve in the rural municipality of Cupar, a small farming community about 75 kilometres northeast of Regina, Sask. He also chairs the Federation of Canadian Municipalities' (FCM) rural forum, which has been advocating for better Internet service outside of Canada's towns and cities.

"You don't realize what the implications of slow Internet service are until something terrible like COVID-19 hits your province," said Orb. "Just to download something, just to read something in the news, it's really slow."

A running joke Orb often hears from his neighbours is that there's enough time to make a sandwich or brew a pot of coffee while waiting for a video to download. Orb was asked to be interviewed about this issue via Skype. The problem? His Internet service lacks the bandwidth for video chatting.

The FCM has been lobbying Ottawa for 10 years about the problem of slow Internet service in rural areas. Orb says historically their arguments have focused on economic reasons, the need for better Internet service as a way to attract business to rural areas. Strong Internet connections are also increasingly important as farming becomes more sophisticated and reliant on access to data. 

Orb said he's heard from rural municipalities across Canada who, like Middlesex County, have had trouble moving their meetings online.

He believes the government is working to address the issue, but said getting "last mile" service down every gravel road in a country as vast as Canada is a major challenge. 

"The government is looking at partnerships to do this and I think that's the right approach," he said.


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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