‘The iceberg you can’t see’: How a lack of reliable internet is creating a digital divide

Building infrastructure that lets the whole province connect will be costly, experts say — but the cost of ignoring the problem would be even higher
By Nathaniel Basen - Published on Jan 25, 2021
Provincial data shows that roughly 12 per cent of Ontarians cannot access reliable connectivity at home. (iStock/Gilles Rivest)

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Leigh-Anna Civitarese and her husband, Rick, can see Thunder Bay from their front door in the winter. They live just a kilometre outside the city limits and pay roughly $70 a month for the same high-speed internet service offered to those in the city — it’s the only plan available to them through their provider. There’s just one problem: “To say that we even have reliable internet is ridiculous,” Leigh-Anna says.

During the pandemic, their three children — two of them in post-secondary school — have had to learn remotely. “We have difficulty maintaining the stream for even two minutes for them for school. It locks up, it freezes, or it'll say ‘not available,’” Leigh-Anna says. Her daughter often can’t access the proper software for her courses. Her son, who’s studying aviation maintenance, was nearly declared a no-show for his final exams because he couldn’t connect. When they have a critical need for internet, they use her daughter’s cellphone as a hot spot.

For some of their neighbours, it’s worse, she says: one woman nearby runs a business out of her home and had to trench in a line to get reliable connection. “We have a neighborhood group chat, and she had to exit it because it was giving her so much stress,” Leigh-Anna says.

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Even basic-level reliable internet is scarce across much of Ontario. Provincial data shows that roughly 12 per cent of Ontarians cannot access reliable connectivity at home. Experts say that the digital divide will become more pronounced as workplaces and schools embrace telecommuting — and that implementing solutions could take years.

According to Allan Thompson, the mayor of Caledon — a large and primarily rural portion of Peel Region — roughly 60 per cent of the municipality’s streets don’t have reliable connectivity. The region, he says, is oversubscribed: too many people rely on overstretched infrastructure. When COVID-19 hit and people began to work from home, he says, “All of a sudden, it just crashed. It was just a complete failure. I think it was from March to June, in one particular area, we had over 1,200 911 calls dropped — and that’s just because of over-usage.”

The situation, he notes, is creating new challenges during COVID-19. “There's a lot of kids that are not able to learn, because they just do not have the connectivity,” he says. “Even in the urban centers, there's places where they get knocked off and are missing parts of class.”

Building infrastructure that connects dispersed populations across varying geography is difficult and expensive, Thompson says — but, he adds, the cost of ignoring the problem is higher, as unreliable internet is untenable for residents and hampers the region’s ability to attract new workers and employers, including high-tech manufacturers. “It's here now. And it's festering,” Thompson says of the problem. “It’s the iceberg you can’t see.”

The cost of infrastructure and the inaction of large telecommunications companies make the problem an especially stubborn one, says Helen Hambly, a professor at the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Design and Rural Development and the lead of the Regional and Rural Broadband Project, a research program dedicated to rural internet connectivity. “The market that interests most of the providers, especially the large ones, it is not in rural areas. It’s in urban areas.”

Governments are starting to take some action. The federal government’s $1.75 billion Universal Broadband Fund aims to connect 98 per cent of Canadians to high-speed internet by 2026. Ontario has pledged roughly $300 million in funding; last week, it announced $11 million for projects in northern Ontario.

It’s a start, Hambly says, but it won’t be enough. “No one knows the entire cost of connecting every Canadian. So anybody who says, ‘Oh, we know how much it would cost’ — it's not realistic,” she says. “Technologies are changing all the time. The infrastructure needs are very regional. There's not really a blueprint for how to develop all this infrastructure efficiently and ensure that everyone has access. So it's complex, and it's unknown to some extent, how much it's actually going to cost.”

And some of the requirements, she says, mean that funding can be difficult for small communities to access. Amedeo Bernardi agrees. A rural broadband consultant and the founder of Canada’s Rural and Remote Broadband Conference Series — which hosts conversations about bridging the digital divide — he says that “now, in the government funding applications, it's a specific deliverable that weighs you higher: multi-regional, multi-community, Indigenous communities. That has weight on the funding scale.”

He notes, though, that communities can band together to build infrastructure. He works with the Northeast Superior Regional Broadband Network, which is made up of five Indigenous communities and four municipalities around Lake Superior that, with the help of some private funding, are working toward becoming their own service provider. “They realize that, you know, they all have the same problem,” he says.

Some of the province’s most recent funding will go to K-Net, an Indigenous service provider based in Sioux Lookout that serves more than 80 First Nations. When it started in the late ’90s, it delivered information to teachers via floppy disk. Penny Carpenter, the director of K-Net, says that funding can take years to access and that infrastructure requires near-constant upgrades: “There was not online gaming in the same way 10 years ago, right?  And now with telemedicine and all the services that have gone online — they weren’t there.”

Hambly says that 5G, the most advanced technology standard of broadband cellular network, will be helpful to some extent in rural areas — for example, farmers can use 5G technology to help automate the harvest of wine grapes or other high-value crops. But, she adds, it won’t be “a silver bullet in rural areas by any stretch of the imagination.” These areas are better off focusing limited time and money on the proven reliability of buried fibre, she says, as opposed to chasing expensive 5G solutions.

Thompson agrees: “The only way to do it is to put fibre in the ground or hang it off telephone poles.”

Many industry leaders, though, are relieved that the problem is finally being recognized.

“It's one of those sectors that the pandemic has finally shone the light on that, wow, you know, ‘Hey, this is a priority,’” Bernardi says. “So it's sort of aligned government, industry, and communities to really focus on their broadband connectivity — and to realize that, without this connectivity, you're isolated.”

That comes as small consolation for frustrated residents. Rick Civitarese say his provider told the family that their area won’t be upgraded until at least 2023. “I don’t mind paying for service,” Rick says. “But we’re not getting the service.”

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