Pandemic making it clear Ontario's rural students are at the back of the virtual class

Now that schooling has gone online amid the pandemic, it's exposing a deep rift between the broadband haves and have-nots.

In a pandemic-plagued province, students in the country struggle to stay in virtual class

Not surprisingly, the pandemic has given kids' technical literacy an enormous boost. (Colin Butler/CBC news)

It hasn't been a great week for Kelly Elliott or her two school-age children. 

"This week has been a nightmare, to be quite frank."

Like many parents in this pandemic-plagued province, the Thorndale, Ont., mother is frustrated by having to balance a demanding career as Deputy Mayor of Thames Centre with the needs of her children, who are studying at home because in-person learning has been cancelled amid a surge in coronavirus cases Ontario-wide. 

Adding an extra layer to that frustration is the fact that she, like many others in rural communities across southwestern Ontario, lives in an underserved area of the country when it comes to the Internet. It means her children are struggling, not just to log on, but to keep themselves from being kicked out of their virtual class. 

"We use satellite Internet, so if it is cloudy, or storming, or anything where you can't get a clear signal, our Internet is down."

"The teachers, to give them all the credit in the world, are doing their best, but essentially [my kids] log in to get their attendance taken and make sure their teachers know they're there and I use air quotations when I say that because they just get kicked out again."

Drive to hotspots

"It's a fight all day to get their lessons and get their work done."

It's also a fight that's not new. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, the Rural Ontario Municipal Association and others have all called for better and cheaper access for people living outside of big cities for years. 

"Some of these communities are suburban, let along rural or remote," said Helen Hambly, a professor at the University of Guelph and the project leader for the regional and rural broadband project, the country's oldest and largest research program based on rural Internet. 

"What's happened to some of these households is that they've had to drive in to Wi-Fi hotspot areas to upload homework, to Tim Horton's or maybe drive to the school."

"This is the coping mechanism that has been used through the pandemic and they're going to continue."

Both federal and provincial governments have invested billions in enhancing rural Internet services, but much of those investments will take years to bear fruit for underserved communities where average speeds are only a fraction of their urban counterparts – if they have it at all. 

Virtual learning is often difficult in rural communities, where families sometimes experience spotty connectivity and need to drive to a school or donut shop to upload homework. (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

A 2018 study on average Internet speeds in southwestern Ontario found the majority of the region was two to 10 times below the CRTC's 50/10 Mbps benchmark rate.

Another 2019 study found nearly one in five Ontario communties was found to have extremely poor quality internet access, where connection speeds average 5 Mbps or below. 

"The end of the last century, Canada was leading in terms of rankings for digital connectivity per citizen and we've fallen very seriously in those rankings. We have less fibre [optics] for citizens than many other countries in say, Central America, or Europe certainly."

"Our dependency on satellite and wireless in many rural areas has really disadvantaged many rural citizens who, even if the money in their pocket could afford better connectivity, can't -  because it's just not available." 


Hambly said the country not only needs a better strategy for getting rural areas broadband service, it needs more awareness of just how bad the problem is because rural Internet users have been hearing the same promises of change for years, while sometimes paying more and receiving less reliable service than their urban counterparts. 

"Don't just call your MP or your MPP, call your service provider," she said. "Call all of them and interact with them and let them know you're facing problems." 

"The big thing is for consumers to demand better service from the provider and leverage those calls to political representatives." 

Hambly said between federal, provincial and municipal levels of government, it's most often municipal governments that deliver better results when it comes to providing more reliable Internet service. 

"This is where the real change has been happening over the last decade."



Colin Butler


Colin Butler covers the environment, real estate, justice as well as urban and rural affairs for CBC News in London, Ont. He is a veteran journalist with 20 years' experience in print, radio and television in seven Canadian cities. You can email him at


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