Why is getting — and staying — online still so difficult in eastern Ontario?

Forty-foot towers. Hundred-foot trenches. In the Township of Douro-Dummer, residents consider large-scale options to deal with slow and unreliable internet
By Ashley Okwuosa - Published on Oct 20, 2020
The federal government has promised to accelerate the connectivity timelines and ambitions of its $1.7 billion Universal Broadband Fund. (iStock/ Bill Oxford)

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In 2016, a few years into using a local internet-service provider, Derrick Leahy began experiencing issues. According to the software developer, who works from home full-time, the connection was often slow and unreliable, and it was almost impossible for him to get any work done. When he called the service provider to complain, it told him that he would need to erect a 40-foot tower on his lawn to fix the problem.

“We didn’t want to do that,” says Leahy. So his family switched internet providers for the third time in about five years.

A resident of the Township of Douro-Dummer, in Peterborough, Leahy is on the unfortunate end of a digital divide that researchers say has been widening for the past decade — and has only grown since the pandemic began. Data from the Canadian Internet Registration Authority shows that, in April, median rural upload and download speeds were 10 and 11 times slower, respectively, than urban upload speeds.

According to researchers, upload and download speeds are two of three important markers used to measure the reliability of internet service. “The three metrics that are important are download, upload, and latency,” says Helen Hambly, an associate professor at the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Design and Rural Development and a project leader for the Regional and Rural Broadband project.

“Download is how fast you’re pulling stuff down from the net. And it’s very important for working from home on Zoom,” Hambly says. “Upload is how quickly it takes to upload something, whether you’re uploading to the cloud or you’re doing a video call and want to run your video, not just your audio. Then latency is like the traffic on the highway. So if there’s lots of it, then latency can be very poor.”

Leahy says that his most recent service provider offered a maximum of 25 megabytes per second for download and one Mbps for uploads — lower than the suggested targets from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which are 50 Mbps for downloads and 10 Mbps for uploads. From March to July, this created difficulties for the family of four. “When you add my girls trying to do submissions for their school work or my wife trying to do video calls, [the internet] just wasn’t doable,” says Leahy, adding that the family had to schedule times when they could use the internet for video calls or to upload documents online.

For other families in the township, cost is also an issue. Janelle Bates and her family had tried several internet-provider services before the pandemic. In 2017, she heard about a Bell ZTE Mobility Wireless Hub through a program advertised by Canadian Wireless Communications.  The cost was $63.95 per month for up to 100 GB. Before the pandemic, she says, when she was working from home once a week and her teenagers were browsing the internet and using the data on their phone, the family was “easily at 100 gigabytes a month.”

But after the pandemic forced the family to adopt a more permanent work-from-home routine, Bates says, she became worried about extra expenses: according to her contract, every gigabyte over their 100 gigabyte limit meant an additional $4. “There were sleepless nights because I began to think, worst-case scenario, if I use another 100 gigabytes, that’s another $400 a month,” she says. “I thought, where am I going to come up with that money? I wasn’t rationing food during my pandemic — I was rationing my internet.”

Anne Landry, library CEO for the township, says that, before the pandemic, residents would come to the library to use the internet, or park their cars outside to get access to Wi-Fi. She says that many have resigned themselves to the challenges of getting online in a rural community: “I think it came to this type of attitude that ‘we live in the country — therefore, we don’t have good internet,’ you know? As kind of a running joke.”

But Douro-Dummer councillor Heather Watson says that reputation puts communities such as theirs at a disadvantage for economic development and makes them less appealing to those looking to relocate from big-city centres. “You start looking at missed economic development opportunities because more people are able to migrate out of city centres because they have the ability to work from home permanently,” she says. “But now we’re not necessarily one of those locations where people can come to.”

Last month, in the throne speech, the federal government acknowledged that COVID-19 has highlighted the need for reliable internet service across Canada and promised to accelerate the connectivity timelines and ambitions of the $1.7 billion Universal Broadband Fund, which aims make the 50/10 Mbps target available in rural and remote areas.

But Hambly says this could still leave many communities underserved and even widen the already existing digital divide between rural communities. According to the Economic Development Strategy for Rural Canada, the fund will be specifically designed around the needs of rural, remote, and Indigenous communities. She’s concerned, though, that the criteria for eligibility might be too narrow, meaning that the fund would be available only to communities with almost no internet access — and not to more densely populated communities with limited access. “We haven’t heard that they’re going to revisit the criteria for selection,” she says. “And that’s the concern we have, because areas like southern Ontario typically would not qualify.”

A spokesperson for Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada told TVO.org via email that the government is working to launch the Universal Broadband Fund soon, adding that “there is a plan to make sure communities with limited and no access benefit from high-speed internet: the government’s Connectivity Strategy aims to provide 100% of Canadians with access to Internet speeds of at least 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload no matter where they live.”

In June, the provincial government unveiled it own plan to remedy connectivity issues, announcing a $150 million broadband and cellular-infrastructure program for 2020-21. Part of a $315 million investment over five years, it will focus on expanded access for unserved and underserved communities and leverage funding from the private sector and other levels of government. Experts say, though, that because of the costs associated with large-scale broadband investments, any effective provincial strategy would need more money to implement.

“Nobody knows how much is really needed, where it is needed, and how to best achieve impact,” says Hambly. “We know the necessary public investment is in the billions. It’s certainly not in the $150 million mark, that’s for sure, because the needs are considerable, and these can be really expensive infrastructure projects.”

Other organizations are developing their own initiatives: the Eastern Ontario Regional Network’s 1 Gig project aims to offer 20 times more than the CRTC target, at 1,000 Mbps, to communities in eastern Ontario using a fiber or cable. According to EORN, delivering 50/10 Mbps service to 95 per cent of homes and businesses in the region will cost between $500 million and $700 million;  doing the same with 1 Gbps would cost anywhere between $1.2 billion and $1.6 billion.

“What we’re realizing is that to develop a project that only moves the needle to the minimum means that, in three or four years from now, as demand increases, we’re just going to have to continually invest,” says EORN co-lead Jim Pine. “So it’s better off to make a larger investment now, because, at the end of the day, it’s probably cheaper, and it’s going to serve people for a longer period of time.

Both Bates and Leahy have taken matters into their own hands. In May, workers dug a 100-foot trench dug outside Bates’s home and installed a cable that allows her family to connect to a wireless internet hub. Leahy’s family is complementing its home internet with a wireless connection from their cellphone that lets them use it as a hotspot.

“It costs money, but we have to do it,” says Leahy.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman. 

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