Getting up to speed: The quest for fast rural internet

By Trevor Hutchinson

Getting up to speed: The quest for fast rural internet

“Our internet service is just deplorable,” declares Angela Field.

The entrepreneur and mother of four describes a situation where data must be rationed – that is, only a little bit of internet time can be used per day for fear of going over an internet company’s cap and being forced to pay more. Family members must alternate their activities with only one person online at any given time. And Field, with her husband Evan Lang, lives just 15 minutes outside of Lindsay — the largest settlement area in the city.

“In fact, our service is so bad, we are currently getting a credit from our provider because we are only receiving a small fraction of the service we are paying for,” she adds.

Field describes a situation that is all too common for rural residents of our city: horrible rural internet.

Mayor Andy Letham is keenly aware of situations like Field’s. Letham describes the state of rural internet in the city as “all over the place.”

Getting up to speed: The quest for fast rural internet
Mayor Andy Letham. Photo: Erin Burrell.

“We have some areas with access to fibre lines direct to the home. In the rural areas, we have gaps. There are line-of-sight issues to a tower. There are other areas that basically have a dial-up level of service. In the south there are pockets that have dead zones,” says the mayor.

For Field, it is a question of fairness. “There is a huge rural population here and for many of us there is nothing in terms of internet. I don’t expect the same service as people get in town. We choose to live rurally,” she says.

However, Field notes that COVID-19 has only heightened the need for good internet, given the growing importance of working from home and home-based education.

Letham, for his part agrees, noting that, “Every year for the last 10 years we have had increased demand for broadband. I believe COVID has forever changed the demand for broadband.”

If there is one piece of good news that has arisen from the pandemic, it may be that the issue of rural internet access is finally on the radar of all levels of government and among the various opposition parties.

Politicians at all level are keen to be seen as investing big dollars in improving the situation.

For instance, the federal government is devoting significant resources to the problem. In a written statement to the Advocate, Marie-Pier Baril, press secretary for Maryam Monsef, the minister for women and gender equality and rural economic development, describes an ambitious plan.

“Included in this $6-billion investment is the new $1-billion Universal Broadband Fund, which will launch soon … and $585 million has been invested in the Connect to Innovate program, which is on track to connect over 975 communities across Canada to high-speed internet by 2023,” states Baril.

Baril explains in the statement that the previously-mentioned funding also includes the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) $750-million broadband fund that will help to improve connectivity across the country through investments in cable, towers, satellites, or whatever it takes.

Financing will also be available through the Canada Infrastructure Bank which is seeking to invest $1 billion to support broadband infrastructure across the country. Two billion dollars is also available through the Rural and Northern Communities stream of the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program, which allocates funding to the provinces and territories.

In early June 2020, the provincial government announced $150 million dollars of funding to improve broadband access in underserved areas of the province. That funding is part of a $315 million dollar plan called Up to Speed: Ontario’s Broadband and Cellular Action Plan.

In a media release from the premier’s office, local MPP and minister of infrastructure, Laurie Scott, highlighted the importance of reliable internet access, which has been made more urgent because of COVID.

“It appears that functioning remotely will continue to be a regular way of life for many in this new environment, and fast reliable internet will be critical. The ICON (Improving Connectivity in Ontario) program is an important step towards bridging the digital divide,” Scott says.

So, there is a lot of funding being announced. But just what will we be spending this money on?

Getting up to speed: The quest for fast rural internetTo understand the current state of rural internet we first need a basic understanding of the terms used to describe internet service.

The speed of an internet connection is measured in megabytes per second (Mbps). Those speeds are further broken down into download speed (how fast it takes to stream Netflix or open an attached photo for example) and upload speed (how fast you can upload a Facebook video for example).

Anything below a download speed of 1.5 Mbps and you are probably unable to stream video or music. And you need a minimum of 5 Mbps to stream high definition video.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has identified broadband service as a basic service that should be available to all. They have identified a speed of 50 Mbps upload and 10 Mbps download with unlimited data — often shortened to 50/10 — as the minimum goal for Canada. That speed enables people to use cloud-based software (the ability to access software on shared computer resources using the internet), use video chat for a doctor’s appointment, and stream high-definition videos.

The federal plan, launched before COVID-19, called for 90 per cent of Canadians to have access to these speeds by 2021 with the remaining 10 per cent of Canadian households reached in two phases over the following 10 years.

For comparison, many residents in Lindsay enjoy speeds of up to one gigabyte per second (Gbps) of download (or 20 times this new national standard) because they get fibre wire (the most efficient way to transmit data) right to their house. The Field and Lang family by contrast can only access one to three Mbps, or up to 50 times slower than the suggested minimum standard. This is one aspect of what policy experts in the field call the digital divide: the gulf between people who can access the internet and those who cannot.

It’s not just about streaming movies, either. The frequent dropping of internet can prevent types of online learning. Or a business in the city’s rural area might not be able to participate in any of the city’s online webinars. Slow internet might be a minor irritant in larger centres, but slow in rural areas can prohibit working from home at all in some cases — which in turn has major implications for attracting new residents and businesses.

It’s been said many times locally that “how’s the internet?” is the number one question realtors get from people who are considering a move to Kawartha Lakes. Given there’s more work-from-home situations than ever, post pandemic, it’s not surprising there’s more need for faster internet.

Mike Rutter, the chief administration officer of Haliburton County, is also the CAO and co-lead of the Eastern Ontario Rural Network (EORN). EORN is an independent not-for-profit dedicated to improving rural connectivity across eastern Ontario and was created by the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus (of which Letham is chair). Rutter explains that an EORN gap analysis showed that 54 per cent of the rural areas of eastern Ontario do not have access to 50/10.

EORN is the group that first brought fibre internet (with a then-fast 10 Mbps speed) to the area between 2005 and 2010. They want to see a proposal that would bring a one Gbps backbone to all of eastern Ontario, including Kawartha Lakes. This proposed project is estimated to cost $1.2 to $1.6 billion.

According to Rutter, the idea is to build a future-proofed system.

Economic Recovery

Letham is also an enthusiastic supporter of the EORN plan. The mayor’s economic recovery task force listed high-speed broadband as one of its two main suggestions to encourage an economic recovery locally.

“I think fibre-quality internet to everyone is the answer. It would take three to four years to roll out. That will give us capacity. If we are going to do it, let’s do it right. Fibre cable is not realistic to every home. But the best result is a fibre backbone,” says Letham.

Dan Barnes is operations manager for Rural Wave, a wireless service provider that he started in Little Britain in the early 2000s. The company now provides a large portion of central Ontario with a combination of service options, depending on the location. Barnes is also chair of the Canadian Association of Wireless internet Providers.

He explains that for most areas in the city that have a collection of 100 homes, there is fast, reliable internet. Getting fast internet to the more isolated homes is a challenge, but there are two things government can do to assist.

Barnes says that running fibre to every home would not be the best use of taxpayer dollars. “What wireless providers need is fibre run to their fixed-point towers. And we need access to the spectrum (the range of frequencies that can send wireless signals),” he says.

Barnes notes that most wireless providers broadcast on the less powerful unregulated spectrum. Getting access to the higher range of the regulated spectrum, with its more powerful signal, will eliminate line-of-sight issues that many people in the area have to deal with. Spectrum is currently auctioned off, so a large company can buy the rights to a spectrum without ever having the business plan to use that spectrum in areas like ours. This process is controlled by the CRTC which has, according to Barnes, become more aware of the problem faced by rural areas, and is considering exempting these areas out of larger spectrum auctions.

Some suggest that if we are spending large amounts of public money on internet connectivity, we should be thinking about the other issue of the digital divide: the people who cannot afford internet service, even if it is available where they live. Canada has declared high-speed internet to be a necessity.

What remains to be seen is if governments are going to decide to spend billions of dollars and still leave people out of what everyone describes as the future of business, education, and entertainment.

COVID-19 has only heightened and made more apparent the digital divide in our city and elsewhere. The decisions we make will affect our economy, our growth, and our culture. But even the most optimistic proponent of the plan knows that achieving broader high-speed access is still two to three years out.

As for Field, she will believe it when she sees it. “We have been told so many promises over the years. This is not about Netflix. This is about my kids’ education. It’s about the ability to do business from home. The internet is now — and it’s the future.”

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