Weekends are for Netflix — except in rural Ontario.
Even with the maximum download speed in the area, it’s almost impossible for a family to check email or surf the web at the same time, let alone stream a movie.
The connectivity problem goes beyond watching the latest episode of House of Cards. Poor Internet access affects businesses, development and commerce. According to Eric Wilson, owner of 3D printing company Rapid Fab in Meaford, opening files from customers takes upwards of 30 minutes.
“I click download and I walk away and go do something else for half an hour,” he says. “It’s a challenge when you’re doing models with complex characteristics.”
Canadians living outside urban areas have long faced barriers to proper Internet access because of low population density. Telecom carriers find return on investment too low to expand infrastructure to more remote locations, and targets for faster rural Internet set by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) have not been met.
In 2011, the CRTC ruled that by the end of 2015 all Canadians should have access to broadband speeds of at least 5 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads. Today, rural providers such as Bell do advertise download and upload speeds of 5 Mbps and 1 Mbps. But a look at Bell’s site shows actual average speeds in places such as Cochrane, a northeastern town about a one-hour drive from Timmins, are only 3.5 Mpbs and 0.6 Mbps.
Even if the target was met, 5 Mpbs is far lower bandwidth than today’s average user needs, says IT professional Geoff Hogan, who led the rural broadband project of Grey County in southwestern Ontario.
“It’s totally ridiculous for anyone in the real world,” he says.
Hogan can get more bandwidth by paying for a digital subscriber line (DSL), but it comes at a high price. He currently pays $150 a month for a download speed of 10 mbps, but complains that with two teenagers and a wife who works from home, his kids can barely get their homework done if he’s streaming a movie.
“If I was in an urban environment, I’d probably ask for 30 Mpbs at least,” he says. “But it’s impossible where I live.”
Compare this to Mississauga. There, Bell offers a plan where you can realistically download at 15 Mbps and upload at 3 to 4 Mbps for $55.95 plus tax, while Rogers offers 30 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload for $64.99 plus tax.
Proponents of rural development say recent sales of government assets to private companies are not helping the matter. In October 2014, communications giant Bell Alliant acquired former Crown Corporation Ontera, an Internet provider serving 30,000 customers in Northern Ontario in a territory spanning 200,000 square kilometres. Peter Politis, Mayor of Cochrane, says companies such as Bell Aliant and Nova Scotia-based Eastlink have no reason to offer enhanced service to communities previously served by Ontera.
“In northern Ontario, you have about 90 per cent of the land mass and six per cent of the population,” he says. “The mass just doesn’t exist to privatize key infrastructure. Companies are going to chase their bottom line. They’re going to focus on the area where they can make money and everything else is going to suffer.”
Governments maintain they are still committed to building rural Internet capacity. The federal government announced in its 2014 budget that it would spend $305 million over five years to expand rural high-speed Internet. Ontario says its $55 million investment in the Eastern Ontario Regional Network will ensure more than 95 per cent of residents in rural eastern Ontario have broadband access. It also points to the $32.8 million Building Broadband in Rural and Northern Ontario initiative that invested in seven networks to give high-speed Internet access in hard-to-serve areas.
But even with this help, rural Internet will be relatively slow. For example, the federal government’s objective through its Connecting Canadians program is to increase high-speed Internet speeds to 5 Mbps for rural areas and 3 to 5 Mbps in areas covered by the northern component of the program. In contrast, the average download speed in Canada, as tested by global web diagnostic application Ookla, is 30.22 Mbps.
Politis says if governments are truly committed to getting Ontario’s rural communities up to speed online, they need to keep key infrastructure in public hands. Ontera spent $20 million of public funds on a fibre optic cable for Northern Ontario before being sold to Bell Aliant.
"The province sold off the entire capacity of fibre optics in Northern Ontario to a private sector company,” he says. “It would be the same as selling the highway. How much sense would it make if we sold the highway to the private sector to save a few bucks?”
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