Rural residents struggle with slow internet during pandemic

Two weeks ago, Peterborough Currents brought you the story of how four local musicians are adapting to life without gigs. Like so many of us, musicians have relied on the internet to maintain a sense of normalcy and continue earning income during the coronavirus pandemic.

But for two of those musicians, the internet has also been a barrier. That’s because Saskia Tomkins and her husband and music partner Steáfán Hannigan live in Baltimore, Ont., and not Peterborough.

“We were live streaming twice a week for a while but the rural internet really killed us,” Hannigan says.

Tomkins teaches music, and has moved some of her lessons online during the pandemic. Though it worked some of the time, she says, “a couple of times I’ve had to cancel or just transfer it to another day because the Wi-Fi’s been so terrible.”

Saskia Tomkins performs in a livestreamed concert. (Via Instagram)

Home internet usage has spiked dramatically during the pandemic, and that has highlighted just how sharp the divide between urban and rural internet access is in Canada. According to data released last month by the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, the median internet speed in rural Canada is almost 12 times slower than in cities — and it has gotten even worse during the COVID-19 crisis.

In small communities outside of Peterborough, rural librarians have noticed an influx of people parking their cars to use the internet during the pandemic.

At the Douro-Dummer Public Library, the Wi-Fi is available 24/7 — you just have to get within range and connect your device. “Even in normal times, there are often one or two vehicles parked in the lot outside the library with people using our Wi-Fi,” says Anne Landry, the library’s CEO. But during the pandemic, Landry says the activity has increased. “Every time I’ve been to the library there’s been quite a few cars parked.”

“Even the patrons with internet at home come to use the library’s internet because it is often faster and more reliable,” Landry adds.

The Douro-Dummer Public Library offers free Wi-Fi 24/7. Parking outside to use it has become popular during the pandemic. (Photo: Ayesha Barmania)

Karla Buckborough, the CEO of Cavan Monaghan Libraries, says people are parking to use her library’s internet during the pandemic, as well. 

“That works for the people who have devices,” Buckborough says, “but I know that we have some patrons who don’t own computers, and so I’m not sure how they’re doing anything. Because, for example CERB and those kinds of benefits, you had to apply online.”

Rural internet users like Hannigan hope the current crisis spurs action on the issue. “It’s got to change,” he says. “Hopefully the pandemic will be a wakeup call.”

Building the infrastructure

Low incomes and the high price of computers are a barrier to accessing the internet for some people. But in many rural communities, the infrastructure needed for a strong broadband connection simply isn’t there to begin with.

“In a lot of cases internet infrastructure investment in [rural] communities has never really happened,” says Laura Tribe, the executive director of OpenMedia, a non-profit that advocates for an open, affordable and surveillance-free internet.

The problem comes down to profit margins. For Canada’s telecom companies, the relatively small number of customers in rural communities don’t warrant expensive investments in fibre-optic networks. But with broadband internet now considered a basic service, government has begun to intervene and partner with telecom companies to close the gap.

For people living in rural eastern Ontario, the Eastern Ontario Regional Network (an offshoot of the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus) coordinates these kinds of partnerships. By negotiating on behalf of 13 mostly rural municipalities, EORN is able to secure better service agreements and lower project costs, according to CEO David Fell.

From 2010 to 2015, EORN spearheaded a project that, with funding from all levels of government as well as the private sector, built a network designed to bring download speeds of up to 10 mbps to 85% of people living in eastern Ontario.

That was considered “high-speed” at the time, but as Fell points out, that was before streaming services like Netflix created a demand for even higher speeds. The federal government’s goal is now to bring an average 50 mbps download speed to 90 percent of Canadians by the end of next year. But Fell says, “We know that won’t happen in eastern Ontario. We won’t even get close to 90 percent.” (EORN is now focussed on a different project: increasing cellular connectivity and speed.)

The federal government supports internet infrastructure through the Connect to Innovate program, which allows partners like telecom companies, municipalities or Indigenous communities to apply to have a portion of their infrastructure costs covered by the federal government.

Connect to Innovate focuses on so-called “backbone” infrastructure — major conduits that connect communities with one another or connect key institutions like hospitals and schools. But the backbone infrastructure alone isn’t enough — every single home or business needs to get connected to the network as well, and these connections, the so-called “last mile,” can prove just as expensive.

Only one Connect to Innovate project has been announced locally. In August, Millbrook-based internet service provider Nexicom announced it would receive $2.9 million in Connect to Innovate funding to extend its fibre-optic network to the South Monaghan, Warsaw and Bewdley areas. As part of the deal, Nexicom will pay for 25 percent of the backbone costs and 100 percent of the last mile costs.

Tina Thornton, special assignments manager at Nexicom, says the company has until March 2023 to complete the backbone network, though she expects they will be completed ahead of schedule. She says they’re focussing on Elizabethville, Garden Hill and Bewdley this year, and South Monaghan and Warsaw next year. Last mile connections to more than 1,000 homes will follow the backbone builds, she says. Residents will not be charged for the installation of their last mile connections, except in “a very small number of cases,” Thornton says.

As the Minister for Rural Economic Development, Maryam Monsef is responsible for rural internet initiatives. In a statement emailed to Peterborough Currents, she emphasized that the federal government has a plan to invest $6 billion to improve rural internet, which includes the Connect to Innovate program and a new program, the Universal Broadband Fund, which is set to launch soon.

“We continue to work with our partners in the telecom industry to provide support and flexibility to rural and remote customers,” Monsef said. “As we prepare to launch the Universal Broadband Fund, we are looking at all options to get Canadians connected as quickly as possible.”

Beyond the big telecoms

Once network infrastructure is built using subsidies through Connect to Innovate, the partnering telecom company or other organization owns the infrastructure outright.

OpenMedia’s Laura Tribe believes that there isn’t enough oversight after the fact to make sure the investment is a good deal for Canadians. “There needs to be some sort of testing to measure if the services being delivered are the same as those being promised,” she says. Right now, “there’s no follow up [asking] if we’re actually getting what we paid for in terms of those speeds.”

For Tribe, the more promising opportunity is for municipalities and Indigenous communities to take advantage of the funding opportunities themselves, instead of relying on the major telecom companies.

Currently, only a couple of rural and small communities in Canada have done that. Olds, Alberta, a community of about 8,500 people north of Calgary, is perhaps the best example. Olds built its own fiber network about a decade ago, and now every resident has access to an affordable fiber-optic connection through O-Net, the community-owned and operated internet service provider. 

The model is a bit more common in bigger municipalities: Stratford, Ont., Coquitlam, B.C., and Sudbury, Ont., all operate their own networks.

But Tribe says it’s a solution smaller municipalities should explore, too. “Communities that are currently waiting can all of a sudden take matters into their own hands; they can take back control and give themselves what they’re tired of waiting for,” she says. 

“We’ve heard from those who have done it that it provides faster services.… And in some cases it’s actually been a revenue generator for them as well.” 

Major telecom companies aren’t able to prioritize small, local markets, Tribe says, because they serve the entire country while also seeking to limit costs and deliver value to their shareholders.

“For areas that have been chronically underserved for so long,” she says, “funding local internet service providers to upgrade their services or funding local communities to build those services is the best way to guarantee that those services continue and serve those communities.”

This article was adapted from a Peterborough Currents email newsletter sent to our subscribers on June 10, 2020. To read the original newsletter, click here.


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