Sudbury·DISCONNECT

'Hey, it's 2020' — COVID-19 shows need for faster internet in northern Ontario

Northern Ontario has long lagged behind the south when it comes to internet service, but the pandemic is pushing the digital divide up to the top of the to-do list.

About 70 per cent of northerners have decent internet service, but almost all in major cities

Satellite showing how internet access in rural areas of northern Ontario, in this case in the Nipissing District, changes from house to house (Blue Sky Net)

Brad Dussiaume looks down his road and doesn't just see homes. He sees offices. He sees small businesses.

He knows his neighbours are also struggling to work from home during the pandemic with the sketchy DSL internet available in this corner of Greater Sudbury.

"Yes, it looks a little rural," Dussiaume says standing on a gravel road, with thick forests in between the houses on Lammi Road.

"But we're still in the main part of the city."

Dussiaume moved here in 2018. It was a bigger place with room for his in-laws to move in, plus a good spot above the garage for his software firm, which he's always run out of his home.

The people who owned the house before told him the internet was "lousy." He later found out how right they were.

Dussiaume says with his current set-up he's told he should be getting six megabits per second. He says he's lucky to get two.

He has now had to rent space for his business, commute there every day and pay for internet service for the office, costing him an extra $12,000 a year. 

"Internet is not a 'nice to have' any more. It's a necessity," says Dussiaume. 

We are zooming in on internet service in northern Ontario this week with a special series called Disconnect. Today, we heard from reporter Erik White who shared stories of folks who have fallen into the gaps. In this installment, we hear about a Sudbury man who used to work at home, but now has to rent an office in order to run his business. 4:38
While many others are now working from home during the pandemic, poor internet service has forced Brad Dussiaume to rent an office in Sudbury for the software firm he used to run out of his house. (Erik White/CBC )

Angelina Jacobs and her partner moved from Mississauga to the shores of Lake Wanapitei last year.

The setting is beautiful, the internet service is not. 

She is connected to a satellite network, but she has to download TV shows onto her tablet and also uses her cellphone for work Zoom calls.

Jacobs and her partner have gotten into the habit of checking the weather forecast and running internet speed tests before planning their work days. 

When it's really bad, she'll make the short drive into Skead, where she grew up. It's a tiny hamlet, but has something much closer to a big city internet signal. 

"It makes video conferencing impossible, because I'm just a pixilated mess," says Jacobs, who helps businesses implement her company's software.

Angelina Jacobs moved from Mississauga to the shores of Lake Wanapitei last year. The internet is not great, but she is hopeful that promises for improved service will come true in the near future. (Erik White/CBC )

Jacobs says clients in Toronto will joke about how a cloud passing overhead could push her off the call, but she knows many of them would give up their condo for her lakefront home, especially during the pandemic.

"We have this gorgeous home, gorgeous view that costs way less than their monthly rent, right?" says the 33-year-old.

"And especially since they can work remote now, I for sure think people will try to start spreading out from the bigger cities."

She is excited to hear governments of all levels talking about improved internet service and is hoping those promises come true in the next few years. 

"I want to say, 'hey it's 2020.' We should have at least decent, not asking for Five Op, but decent internet," says Jacobs.

"We're a First World country. We want to promote the north."

We have another installment in our series Disconnect, a look at internet service in the north. We meet a woman who moved back to northern Ontario a year ago... traded her great internet service for a beautiful lakefront view, but says the north deserves good internet too, especially in a post-pandemic world. That story... from the CBC's Erik White. 5:39
Many northerners have gotten into the habit of checking the weather forecast and regularly testing their internet speed before planning out their day. (Erik White/CBC )

When Michael Blair and his wife and two kids moved to East Ferris nine years ago, they knew they'd be giving up some of their online lives.

"We were OK with not having as much internet. In a way it metered us, brought us out of our rooms and brought us together," he says. 

"When it started to impact businesses, when it started to impact education, that changed things."

That changed with the pandemic, when Blair's country home south of North Bay became his office and his kids' classroom.

He has now joined the East Ferris Internet Advocacy Group, lobbying for better service for the small town.

"It's only going to become more important and I believe we can't rely on the traditional funding models," says Blair.

We launched our new series called Disconnect, a look at internet service in northern Ontario. In this installment, the CBC's Erik White brings us the story of Michael Blair, whose poor internet service became a lot more problematic when the pandemic forced people to rely on the internet to get things done. 3:16
Michael Blair and his family tolerated slow internet in East Ferris for years, but the pandemic prompted him to join a group pushing for better service. (Tracy Fuller/CBC )

The Manitoulin Health Centre in Little Current is on fibre optic cable and has strong, fast service.

But the rest of the island does not and the virtual appointments that have become popular during the pandemic have been difficult to offer patients. 

Vice-president of corporate services Tim Vine says, without improved broadband infrastructure, large parts of northern Ontario will get left out of the health care system of tomorrow. 

"I think more and more it's appropriate to think of access to internet service being provided to folks as something like a public utility," he says. 

As part of our new series Disconnect, looking at internet service in the north, we hear from a health centre on Manitoulin Island that has a strong connection... but wants their patients to have the same thing. The CBC's Erik White spoke with Tim Vine of the Manitoulin Health Centre in Little Current about the varying levels of internet service on Manitoulin Island. 3:35

Jeff Buell's job is identifiying the gaps in internet service in northern Ontario and trying to find ways to fill them.

Somedays, his own home is in that category.

Buell, his wife and four kids are sharing a shaky DSL line in Chisholm Township, south of North Bay, and after COVID-19 hit, he was forced to get a second cellular connection for his work at Blue Sky Net. 

Map showing how much of Greater Sudbury has 50/10 internet service, but how that fades away very quickly after you go into more rural areas of the northeast. (Blue Sky Net)

"I actually haven't asked Susan, because I don't want to know, but I suspect it's around $300, $400," he says with a laugh. 

"'I've had to promise 'I'm not streaming anything. It's work!'"

Buell says about 70 per cent of northern Ontario has decent service, but almost all of them live in the five major cities.

And even then, speed tests show that in cities like Timmins or Sault Ste. Marie, it's not always easy to get the CRTC national minimum standard of 50 megabits per second download and 10 megabits upload. 

Buell says right now he's trying to figure out how much it would cost to run fibre optic cable at about $80 per metre to every home and business in the north. 

"Understanding that that's not realistic and we're going to have a number that's so big we can't comprehend," he says.

Buell says then you could identify which areas would be tough to serve with fibre and look at other options, including fixed internet towers or low orbit satellites.

He says one big difference from other major infrastructure builds of the past is that the internet will constantly need upgrading.

"I don't see that stopping. I mean what's the next phase. Three-dimensional broadcasting and ultra high definition," says Buell. 

"I think the sky's the limit."

Our series Disconnect - internet service in the north, asks the question... How big are the gaps in internet service in northern Ontario? The CBC's Erik White takes a look at the map with someone whose job it is to find ways to get more northerners online. 6:57

About the Author

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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