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Rural internet issues put in sharper focus during pandemic

With workers and students at home, internet speeds in rural Ontario can't keep up with the need
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PUSLINCH – Engineering student Raj Mody got a crash course in rural internet difficulties moving to Morriston from Brampton a month ago. 

Mody and his brother are engineering students at the University of Waterloo and McMaster respectively. Their father is a telecommunications engineer. Three engineers in one house with everyone working from home has caused some big problems.

“My brother is a data scientist and I’m a hardware engineer, so we have to access a lot of servers and he’s got a lot of data to download and crunch,” Mody said. “My dad’s constantly on video conferences and with only 6 Mbps, it’s practically impossible down here.”

It’s a story Glenn James has heard before. James founded and is the chair of the Puslinch Highspeed Committee, an organization to accelerate the deployment of high-speed internet in the area.

James said the COVID-19 situation has made the need for this access clearer than ever. 

“We’re in a situation which really illustrates the requirement for treating internet for everybody and high-speed internet for everybody as an absolute necessity,” James said. “There will be more people who continue to work from home and I’m not sure when the kids are going to get back to school.”

The committee was formed last fall after some discussions with local politicians. James found a partner in councillor John Sepulis, who ran for election on a platform of improving internet access.

Sepulis said internet in the area has gotten a little better but speeds are inconsistent. During the COVID crisis, Sepulis is feeling the struggle during remote council meetings.

“I’m trying to have a Zoom conference for council meetings and I have to click off the video and just go on audio,” Sepulis said. “The bandwidth isn’t there to transmit both at the same time.”

There is access to fibre internet in some parts of Morriston and Aberfoyle but Sepulis said the speeds are still low in comparison to what you can get in a city. 

“Here in the country, if you’re lucky you’re within distance of a tower that might have some internet service on it,” Sepulis said. “If you’re not then you start paying through the nose by going with satellite.”

Using an LTE satellite hotspot is one of the solutions the Mody family has come up with if all family members need the internet at once. With only 20 Gb of data per month, it has to be used sparingly.

“I have to access all these simulation tools, so on a daily basis I consume around one gig just from downloading files and another gig to upload those files back,” Mody said. 

The family could upgrade to 50 Gb of data per month but Mody said they’d be paying nearly $200 on top of what they already pay for internet. 

Students at all levels have moved to online learning. Councillor Sepulis wondered how they’re getting their lessons with low internet speeds.

James said he has heard a lot of stories from the community of people who are having difficulty prioritizing their broadband with their work from home and their children’s school work.

“I’d be interested to know how many teachers were fully aware at the start of all this of the challenges rural communities have,” James said. 

Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB) communications officer Heather Loney said by email the board recognizes this is an issue for rural students. 

In early April, UGDSB teachers contacted all families to ask about their access to technology. At the time, over 1,000 students reported challenges with access to reliable internet.

“The board developed a list of supports which is intended to provide options for families to help them, which is intended to provide options for families to help them participate as fully as possible in our distance learning programs,” Loney said by email. “As part of this work, the board also developed a process for distributing printed materials to students.”

James said there have been good intentions in regards to funding improved rural internet from the government but hasn’t seen much hard action. 

Efforts in southwestern Ontario have spurned the creation of Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT) broadband expansion project led by municipalities. SWIFT board chair David Mayberry in an email statement said the COVID crisis has highlighted the need for high speed internet in rural Ontario. 

“In partnership with community leaders and our service providers we are committed to improving network coverage in rural areas across southwestern Ontario, including in Wellington County,” Mayberry said in an email statement. “SWIFT recently announced nearly 2,900 households and businesses throughout the townships of Guelph Eramosa, Centre Wellington, Mapleton and Wellington North will have access to faster and better internet services as a result of SWIFT’s regional broadband expansion plan.”

James said he doesn’t feel SWIFT has been an effective organization since its inception four years ago. He said to date they have not implemented any high-speed internet projects.

“I think the failure has been mostly changes in government both federal and provincial,” James said. “SWIFT relied on a combination of municipal funding, private funding, ontario provincial funding and federal funding. They’ve made a lot of good, solid funding announcements but until recently there have been no projects awarded.”

James said Canada’s big telecommunications companies also share the blame. 

“The market failure has really been a function of large telecos having not included rural Canada in their business plans,” James said. “The reason is it just costs them more money to lay fibre. They’d much rather spend $1 billion in the City of Toronto laying fibre where the cost per household is much less than it is out here.”

The Puslinch Highspeed Committee has turned its focus to working with smaller, local internet service providers and identify funding opportunities. James recognizes that the competition for funding will be intense under the COVID-19 pandemic as a lot of organizations look for government money. 

Sepulis said the committee is taking interest from internet providers and he will continue to advocate for this at the municipal council level. 

“To me, it’s an essential service like your hydro,” Sepulis said. “If you’re not connected, you miss out on a lot of things.”

For the time being, the Mody family has to work around each other. Mody speculates that students will not be attending school in-person this fall. This would prove to be a huge issue as both brothers normally live in residence or student housing. 

Mody said he thinks he and his brother would have to move to be consistent with their studies and work. He said small towns like Puslinch will have a hard time attracting younger people to move there if they don’t address the internet problem.

“If they want younger people to move into these communities, it’s very hard because a lot of people now work in the tech industry or something related to tech and now we all have to work from home,” Mody said. “I don’t know how they’re just getting by with 6 Mbps because even video conferencing, if there’s four people it just destroys your bandwidth.”


Keegan Kozolanka

About the Author: Keegan Kozolanka

Keegan Kozolanka covers civic matters under the Local Journalism initiative, which is funded by the Government of Canada
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