by Ronnie Morris
Published at 2020-09-16
Every year, I get a much-needed break from the city when my family rents a cottage in the country. We thought the COVID-19 outbreak had made that impossible this year, but in June the Ontario government announced Stage 2 of its reopening strategy and allowed short-term rentals to resume. Although we still waited a few months to see how things went, ultimately we chose to follow through with our plan, scheduled for the end of August. I knew I would have to connect to the internet every couple of days to keep up with work, which is when I was introduced to the realities of rural access.
The fact is, internet access remains a luxury denied to half of the world’s population. Although in Canada there are high connection rates, in other parts of the world, such as India, only about one-third of the population can do so. Even within our country, there is a discrepancy between those who have access and those who don’t. This has created real barriers, such as the inability to apply for certain jobs, or the inability to participate in social activities, and the challenge of working remotely.
To some extent, the challenges of access result from the availability of connectivity resources in rural areas. While urban areas have a 100 percent high speed internet availability rate, rural areas only have an 87 percent rate, according to Statistics Canada.
The quality of networks vary wildly as well, with those in urban areas often enjoying FTTP connectivity, while those in older rural neighbourhoods continue to connect through legacy telephone or cable technologies.
In the area of our cottage holiday, even cable connections were unavailable, and for both internet and television people depend on older DSL dishes. Cellular LTE connections can sometimes be made but access is unstable: like DSL, connections can be adversely affected by the weather, especially when the user happens to be close to the water.
I knew that I had a chance at using the internet through a library or community centre. When I sought a stable connection at the local public library, however, I found it difficult even at this stage of Ontario’s recovery because staff were forced to limit the amount of time patrons could spend online in order to reduce the number of people on the premises.
I eventually found a stable connection using the Wi-Fi at a local Tim Hortons. At first, I was reluctant to actually enter the restaurant and tried to connect from the parking lot, but the signal outside wasn’t strong enough and the pull of coffee and donuts was too strong. With restrictions on the amount of indoor seating available, I was lucky I arrived after the morning rush: I was able to find a spot without much difficulty, but I found the restaurant got busy again by early afternoon.
I went there regularly over two weeks to connect, and a few faces became familiar, staring at cell phones or laptops, and I realized I wasn’t the only one there for caffeine and internet access. The staff, required to take down my name and number at every visit, got to know me too: I became that weirdo from Toronto that was there all the time.
The social distancing practices that have been recommended to flatten the COVID-19 curve have made internet access indispensable for working from home, for online education, for telemedicine, for wellness checks with family and friends, and for receiving new information from local government. We take the ability to shift to an entirely digital lifestyle for granted, but not everyone is able to do so.
With that in mind, connectivity shouldn’t be a luxury. We depend more than ever on internet access just to go about our daily lives. Internet provides critical services that we all rely on in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak to stay informed, but this is especially true for those of us living in remote areas.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission declared the internet a basic service back in 2016, and there are a number of federal initiatives currently being implemented to reduce the digital divide in Canada. Some of these are aimed at increasing the amount of free public Wi-Fi or improving digital literacy among students in public schools. Others seek to provide Canadians and First Nations communities across the country with high speed internet access at home: the current target to bring everyone online is 2030.
I hope that I will be able to connect more easily long before then.
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