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Slow, unreliable Internet service plagues rural BC

Dene Moore: Working from home and accessing vital services remotely requires reliable broadband access. Too many British Columbians don’t have it.

I’m diligently physically distancing, which means I have a fair bit of extra time on my hands this spring. I also have a long list of deep spring cleaning that may have been overlooked for the past year or nine.

So as the weather warmed up this past week in the Cariboo, I did what any reasonable homeowner would do – I finished binge-watching the final season of Peaky Blinders.

At least, I tried.

Like most rural and remote residents of the province, I don’t have access to reliable high-speed internet. Satellite internet is my only option and while it promises a speed of “up to” 25 megabits per second, it more regularly clocks in around 5-15. Sometimes, it’s 1-2 Mbps.

With increased use with everyone at home due to COVID, those speeds have only gotten worse. The fact is, I pay for a service that the providers don’t have the infrastructure to provide.

Like most rural and remote residents of the province, I don’t have access to reliable high-speed internet.

Only 36 per cent of rural B.C. communities have access to reliable high-speed internet service, according to the province.

It’s frustrating, then, to see provincial agencies like ICBC, schools, even medical clinics tout the benefits of online services. Do we even need to go back to bricks-and-mortar and working at the office when restrictions ease, people are asking?

The answer from out here in the province’s telecommunications wilderness is hell, yes, we do.

Until legislation forces telecommunications providers to provide services to rural and remote areas where profits are low, in order to make bank on urban areas, this vision of virtual classrooms and telehealth for all is pure fantasy.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has a target speed of 50 Mbps. In most rural and remote areas, you’ll find that contracts may offer service “up to” that speed – but in reality, they don’t have the infrastructure to provide it.

Do we even need to go back to working at the office when restrictions ease? The answer in the telecommunications wilderness is hell, yes, we do.

B.C. is a big province. It’s expensive to extend broadband coverage. Given the option, many providers understandably opt not to take on that expense.

In Finland, broadband access is a legal right. The European Union on a broader scale has adopted a Universal Service Obligation, though the effectiveness of the commitment is debatable.

In December 2016, the CRTC declared broadband internet service a basic telecommunications service. With that, the regulator ordered internet providers to boost internet service and speeds to rural and isolated areas. Peaky Blinders and I are still waiting.

The commission set the targets of “at least” 50 megabits per second download speeds and 10 Mbps upload speeds, along with the option of unlimited data.

But the commission also estimated just 18 per cent of Canadian households don’t have access to those speeds or data. Not even industry pretends the number is that low, and a 2018 report by the Auditor General of Canada found only 39 per cent of Canadians living in rural and remote areas had access to high-speed internet services.

And that doesn’t even begin to address the demographic challenge in rural B.C., where there is a significantly higher proportion of seniors with few opportunities to learn how to use online services.

Children will return to school divided into two groups: those with high-speed; and those who don’t.

In real life, what this means is that rural seniors whose car insurance expires before the province reopens will either drive without insurance or become prisoners of their own homes, as insurance offices are legislated closed and coverage is handled online and via email.

It means that children will return to school divided clearly into two groups: those whose households have high-speed so they can access their suddenly cyber classrooms; and those who don’t.

It means rural British Columbians who can afford the costly access to rural broadband can apply for provincial and federal relief funds will get it and those who can’t, I guess, won’t.

There are no shortage of commitments on paper to providing us rural folk equal access to services as our urban cousins. What we need is for it to actually happen. Before the next international crisis would be nice.

Dene Moore is an award-winning journalist and writer. A news editor and reporter for The Canadian Press news agency for 16 years, Moore is now a freelance journalist living in the South Cariboo. Moore’s two decades in daily journalism took her as far afield as Kandahar as a war correspondent and the Innu communities of Labrador. She has worked in newsrooms in Vancouver, Montreal, Regina, Saskatoon, St. John’s and Edmonton. She has been published in the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s magazine, the New York Times and the Toronto Star, among others. She is a Habs fan and believes this is the year.