Coronavirus crisis highlights internet access inequality across Saskatchewan
Rural residents’ frustrations over poor internet builds alongside reliance on connectivity during pandemic
Barb Stamatinos had been on a waiting list for four years to get internet access when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
Stamatinos is an administrator with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, and she is wondering why her family has had to install essential technology on their Jedburgh, Sask., area farm northwest of Yorkton, at their own cost during a crisis.
"It takes me 20 minutes to download a 200-page document," said Stamatinos, describing how she moves her work space to different rooms to find the best cellphone reception.
"It's kind of a running joke: 'My call dropped again. Call you back,'" said Stamatinos about working remotely with her colleagues in urban centres.
"Does it have an effect? Yeah. When you see people in Regina and Saskatoon chatting away to each other on video, their face freezes for two minutes and you know that they're not experiencing it. I don't feel like it's fair."
After two weeks of struggling to work remotely with poor reception, Stamatinos contacted SaskTel. She was told service wasn't available in her area and that she should purchase supportive technology. She made the decision to absorb the cost and buy a $700 cellphone signal booster.
SaskTel says fusion internet and mobile internet services are offered through their wireless network across the province. Fusion is a shared service with a finite amount of bandwidth available that is shared between all users on a particular tower. The tower east of Jedburgh has the maximum number of users and SaskTel has issued a "stop sell" of fusion on the tower. They do not currently have a time frame as to when that may be lifted in that area.
CRTC data suggests as few as 40 per cent of Canadian households in rural areas have access to high-speed broadband.
Since 2014 the Stamatinos family has purchased $3,000 worth of cellphone signal boosters to improve access on their farm, in addition to their monthly bills for cellphone data usage. The technology they have purchased has not increased their bandwidth and Stamatinos is frustrated that her family members are being asked to do the ongoing technical work.
"Not everybody can afford a cellphone booster. Not everyone can install it," said Stamatinos. "It [the internet] is super integrated into our lives. We are rural people and we want the exact same things the city people want."
Poor internet impeding agribusiness, says family
The limited bandwidth has forced Stamatinos and her fiancé, Jason Hiduk, to restructure their day together as they take turns rationing the available internet.
By 5:30 a.m. Hiduk is online invoicing customers for his parts and services agribusiness so Stamatinos will have the bandwidth she needs when her regular work day with health authority begins at 8 a.m.
Hiduk is using the couple's cellphone data to prepare for seeding.
Covid-19 measures have forced even more agribusiness online, and Hiduk's data usage goes towards purchasing equipment, selling last year's product and providing real time data to agronomists making decisions that can cost thousands of dollars. Gaps in service are limiting the farm's capacity to make urgent repairs on equipment and they are often unable to access GPS functions on seeding equipment that make the precision farming operation efficient. Hiduk estimates that he has lost tens of thousands of dollars from poor reception that has forced wait times on his farming operation.
"Farms are multimillion-dollar businesses. Can you imagine any other multimillion-dollar business working without access to high-speed internet?" said Stamatinos.
The Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan has been conducting regular surveys of its members during the pandemic, and many respondents are saying they're noticing increased disruption in internet connectivity.
"They're talking about 5G and we don't even have 3G," says association president Todd Lewis. "If we don't have it, we're going to be at a competitive disadvantage.
"I've said this before but lots of nights from my farm I can see the lights of the SaskTel building in downtown Regina, but I can't make a phone call to it."
Rural residents left behind as world moves online
As more services like grocery shopping and social activities move online in the aim of staying safe, Stamatinos hasn't been able to access them.
If you have a problem you have to fix it yourself and you have to pay for it on top of that, it doesn't really make you feel like you are included in the conversation.- Barb Stamatinos
"If someone invites me, 'Hey let's do a virtual game,' I can never participate. [My mother-in-law] tries to Facetime her granddaughter and her granddaughter doesn't get to see her," said Stamatinos.
"If you're a kid and you're 10 years old and you're trying to hang out with your friends, this is creating problems for you. It's setting these kids back in school and with their friends."
Rural residents across Saskatchewan have been concerned about how limited access is preventing their children from accessing remote learning tools and is leaving them behind in their education.
"If you have a problem you have to fix it yourself and you have to pay for it on top of that, it doesn't really make you feel like you are included in the conversation."
Infrastructure improvements could be on the way
The Liberal government has announced that it is working to speed up plans to improve access to high-speed internet in rural and remote communities in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities president Ray Orb has been advocating for changes to rural access and he is concerned that certain MPs don't understand the issues rural Saskatchewan residents are facing.
"Federal money being there is one thing, but the provinces and some of the municipalities need to form partnerships to work together to deliver some of this in rural Canada," said Orb. "Our health delivery — some of that is being done online now. ... They can get some diagnosis online and there are some areas where we cannot do that. They are at a disadvantage because of that."
Orb said service providers have been focused on urban centres because of the financial incentives but now it is time to change how service is provided across Saskatchewan.
"It may get to the point where we have some legislation that dictates what SaskTel and other service providers will have to do."
In a statement to CBC, SaskTel said it has invested more than $3 billion across Saskatchewan in the last 10 years. That has gone, in part, to adding 36 fusion internet towers, improvements to wired broadband networks, and increasing download speeds in rural communities.
On Monday, SaskTel announced it plans to spend about $324 million in capital projects in Saskatchewan this fiscal year. Nearly $80 million of that will be directed toward better access to reliable cellular and high-speed internet services. They are also in the process of expanding their fibre optics network (infiNET) to communities outside the major urban centres.
"SaskTel has always been committed to the people of Saskatchewan and with or without legislation we will continue to do what we can to provide our customers throughout the province with the advanced communications services they need to connect to their world today and into the future."