How COVID-19 is deepening Canada’s digital divide

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The Chawathil First Nation is just 600 yards north of the Trans-Canada Highway in southwestern British Columbia, but it seems a lot further out when you try to connect to the internet from here.This is evident when, behind a plexiglass barrier at the gang’s office, CFO Peter John attempts to run an online speed test to measure the dial-up connection.

The page takes almost two minutes to load, and once it does the meter indicates that the download speed is extremely slow at one megabit per second (Mbps)

With this kind of setup, it means that students have a hard time with online lessons and the group cannot organize video conferences.

“Anything they’ve been able to get on the Internet, they can’t really get because it’s not there,” John said.

When the pandemic propelled most schools, work and online services, it further highlighted not only how essential the internet has become, but also the urban-rural divide around access.

CRTC recommends that every household have access to broadband with download speeds of at least 50 Mbps, and the federal government has set a goal of having broadband across Canada by 2030 .

According to the CRTC, nearly 86% of households overall have this level of service now, but in rural areas, only 40% do. In First Nations communities, it is estimated that only 30% of households have Internet connections at the recommended speed.

And although connections in remote areas are often slower, service tends to be more expensive.

Deanna John, a child and family advocate and band councilor from Chawathil First Nation, said residents of the community who have internet access pay around $ 130 per month, while others come to the office. of the tape after hours to see if they can tap into the building’s network. Some choose to take a 35-minute bus ride to Chilliwack to use the Wi-Fi at a cafe, she said.

The limited internet has made it more difficult for residents to obtain health care.

John said the community doctor, who came about once a week before the COVID-19 pandemic, is unable to see patients online. Instead, some residents went to the nearby town of Agassiz for dates.

Peter John and Deanna John stand in front of the Chawathil First Nation Band Office, where the only Internet connection is a dedicated phone line. (Briar Stewart / CBC News)

” I would like [the internet] to be available and available… so that we don’t struggle to have our children fall back on education and actually connect our people to mental health specialists, ”John said.

John said the group had discussed upgrading the internet with Telus, but it would cost them tens of thousands just to increase the speed at the band’s office.

Federal funding

In Budget 2019, the federal government announced $ 1.7 billion in funding to support high-speed Internet in remote and rural areas: $ 1 billion is earmarked for a Universal Broadband Fund, for expanding the Internet infrastructure; $ 600 million for satellites, which can help connect some of the most remote communities; and $ 85 million to complete an ongoing program called Connect to Innovate, which helps fund specific community projects in rural and First Nations communities.

The Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), a non-profit organization that manages the .ca domain and advocates for better internet service, says it is currently working with around 400 rural communities to map neighborhood connection speeds by neighborhood. The organization also manages an annual grant program of $ 1.25 million to help communities invest in projects, including internet infrastructure.

“Canada’s Internet service providers have outgrown many communities because they just aren’t worth the money,” said Josh Tabish, director of corporate communications at CIRA.

“This is where we need the government to step in. ”

He said experts estimate it will cost up to $ 6 billion to deploy broadband across Canada and he believes the federal government needs to act faster. The application for the Universal Broadband fund is not yet open.

Tabish said about one in ten Canadian households have no internet connection, and the pandemic has exacerbated the connectivity gap between rural and urban areas. He said broadband internet has become even faster in cities, while it has stabilized in remote areas.

In the meantime, he says, those who don’t have it struggle with everyday life.

Uneven satellite connection

In the hamlet of Ryder Lake, residents have been advocating for better internet for years. The community is made up of large tracts of land and farms that stretch across a lush green mountainside in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia.

The scenery was one of the reasons Sheri Elgermsa and her family of six moved here despite the fact that only satellite internet is available. When visiting CBC News, his family was only getting a download speed of around nine Mbps.

WATCH | Family of 6 schedules online due to slow speed and irregular service

Sheri Elgersma, a resident of Ryder Lake, British Columbia, explains how managing her children’s time online has become even more complicated during this unusual school year. 0:57

“When we moved here eight and a half years ago, the Internet… was a social activity. It was nice to have, ”said Elgersma.

“Now it has become essential. ”

When schools were closed in the spring and lessons went online, Elgersma had to sit down with her four children and set a schedule, as the internet connection would only allow one person to be online. at a time.

If there were any overlapping classes, she said, she would have to choose one over another.

His eldest son, Elijah, 18, was often the priority, as he finished his final year of high school. He is now enrolled in a college program and has online classes two days a week, but even though no one else in the house is allowed online at these times, the internet is still a problem.

“All of a sudden it gets frozen and I’m missing half the stuff,” Elijah said.

“It’s a little frustrating. “

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