Rural High-Speed Internet – “The further we go the behinder we get”. by Ken Holmes

We are hearing about initiatives that aim to improve Rural High-Speed Internet service but I’m not seeing much improvement in my rural Ottawa area. Did we miss something? Friends compare their Internet service with what is available in cottage country – not in the Nation’s Capital. How is the High-Speed Internet connection in the rural area?

Consider some typical scenarios in the rural area:

  • The teenage son (the procrastinator) has a project that requires an Internet connection better than what is available at home. But the nearest public Wi-Fi is in the Public Library that is closed 4 days out of 7 and only open 12 hours among the three days it is open. Today is not one of these days. You are close to Tim Horton’s in Arnprior but that is not a good place for researching…so have to drive him the 23 kms to Carp.
  • Someone has recently started a small, home-based independent business aimed at rural customers…but is being advised that many of her prospective clients cannot use her new web site as it requires a greater bandwidth than the service they have at home.
  • A daughter at Algonquin College needs to take an exam on-line. The home Internet service is inadequate so the family has to drive to the local free Public Wi-Fi in a restaurant…..not great environment for taking an exam!
  • Desperately trying to find ways to help an aging grandmother maintain contact with her family, the family has spent a lot of effort introducing her to the use of Skype….only to find that her internet service cannot reliably maintain an adequate connection and the connection breaks in the middle of the conversations.
  • We are regularly told to go to a federal department’s web site and SEARCH for information. But, when we try to connect to the Search feature it is incredibly slow and the connection regularly fails.

Can you identify with any of these situations?

If so, check the performance of your Internet connection with the TEST at: . Using this tool will help ‘populate’ the map so politicians who are deciding on the allocation of priorities and funding can be better-informed about the local situation. For the Ottawa area, this can help disabuse them of the thought that all the City of Ottawa already has reasonable quality Internet service.

Is there help on the way?

In December, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ruled that everyone in Canada should be able to access high-speed Internet. It was stated that broadband Internet should be considered a “basic telecom service” with download speeds of at least 50 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of at least 10 Mbps. The decision also included that all customers – even in rural areas where plans often have low caps on data usage – should have access to unlimited data options. But it is the current local experience that many Internet connections do not even reach the 5 Mbps performance.

CRTC estimates that roughly 18% of Canadian households currently do not have access to those speeds and they aim to reduce that to 10% by 2021 and down to zero in the next 10 to 15 years. But some skepticism may be warranted as the last time CRTC considered this issue in 2011, it set a target of universal access to download speeds of five Mbps… and many of the rural resident do not yet have even that level of performance.

CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais said that “the future of our economy, our prosperity and our society – indeed, the future of every citizen – requires us to set ambitious goals, and to get on with connecting all Canadians for the 21st century.” So how are we doing so far? Are you up to the 21st Century expectations? Not likely if you are in rural Ottawa or many other rural parts of Ontario. The map at the website: shows that most of the service in Rural Ottawa is now at connection speeds of less than 4 Mbps.

CRTC says that 82% of Canadians already have access to their target download and upload speeds – but this performance level is only commonplace in urban areas and is out of reach in many of the rural and northern areas. To address this situation, a new fund is to be established that will invest up to $750-million over five years to expand broadband services to remote areas. So how does Rural Ottawa or your rural area fit into the plan? Or, more pointedly…where is the plan?

There have been other federal and provincial government initiatives but I do not believe that we have seen many benefits in Rural Ottawa. In 2014 the Federal Government created the “Connecting Canadians” program that was to devote $305 million to connecting 280,000 Canadian households by 2017. The next federal government committed an additional $500 million over the next five years towards the same goal of connecting underserved areas.

As we approached Canada’s 150th anniversary, we heard the promo: “ …the ties that bind us are increasingly digital….” In 2015 the federal government estimated that 94% of Canadians had access to high-speed Internet. Their goal was to close the gap so it would go to as close to 100% as possible. The first round of project approvals involved connecting some 356,000 households at a total cost of $186 million. But this was to be only the first step. Have we heard anything about the next steps and where Rural Ottawa fits in?

In May 2016 CRTC estimated that 77% of households were connected to the Internet and that 96% of Canadian households could access a download speed of 5 Mbps. But the evidence today shows that Rural Ottawa is far below this 96%.

The Province of Ontario announced a $281 million “SWIFT” (the SouthWestern Integrated Fibre Technology) project in Spring 2017 that is supposed to ensure more people – especially those in rural areas – have access to the new fibre optic network. Describing it as “very transformational,” it’s goal is that every household in Southwest Ontario should have 1 GB high speed Internet access by 2023. The governments of Canada and Ontario will each contribute up to $90 million. We wish south-western Ontario well in this venture but how can we be funding one part of the province with such a program without explaining what will happen with the rest of the underserved province?

High Speed Internet is as vital to the lives and livelihood of Rural Ottawa as it is to the urban areas. CRTC has set a target of 100% of Canada having Internet service with download speeds of at least 50 Mbps and upload speeds of at least 10 Mbps in 10 to 15 years. A noble target but the rural areas cannot continue to be left behind for the next 10 years. Promising to establish a fund that will invest up to $750-million over five years sounds alluring. But, to be believed, these targets need to be reflected in a funded and prioritized plan that is not evident today.

If you are dissatisfied with your current Internet service, ask your City Councillor, your MPP and your MP what is being planned to bring good and affordable high-speed Internet to your rural area. And register the performance of your Internet connection on the site: so that politicians at all levels can plainly see the current service inequities between the urban and rural areas.

Ken Holmes retired in rural Ottawa some 25 years ago. Since Amalgamation of the City of Ottawa he has advocated for better governance at City Hall and for a proper recognition of the particular needs of the residents and taxpayers of
rural Ottawa. He can be reached at: