The Federal government has been busy during this pandemic. It has not only been focusing on ameliorating the effects and consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has also been looking past that into what we could or should be doing once this pandemic is over.
One of the consequences of the current set of circumstances is that we are officially in a recession! While Economists are less certain about when a recession will occur[i], they can tell you that one of the consequences of a recession is that things change after those events are resolved. Economies do not return to their previous path, upon exiting the recession. New paths are formed.
There are several reasons for the current recession. Part of this recession is due to the COVID-19 pandemic, part of this is due to the inverted yield curve, the US China trade war and other countries’ imminent recessions. The COVIC-19 pandemic was the tipping point, but the other factors were all pointing to the eventuality of the recession. So, when this recession is over, many things will have changed, and we will be doing things differently. Hopefully more efficiently and with more success.
And why does the exit from a recession not look like the entry to it? That is because certain ideas are proven to be obsolete, and along with that, certain technologies are abandoned. The hiatus during the recession gives us pause to reconsider our options and generate new ideas.
But what does this have to do with the digital divide?
Well as this story began, the feds (Canadian, eh!) are looking past this current set of challenging circumstances and are working on improving broadband services to rural areas, amongst other projects. They have amped up their interest and level of investment in this area. Rural Broadband is quite pricey and there are many final drop points and alternative solutions to consider along with this path.
Figure 1: National Internet Service Available
Comment: while this map looks well shaded for the rural places, particularly in western Canada, it is not necessarily so. Vast regions within these shaded areas are not able to access broadband (i.e. cellular access/rural broadband) networks. Notice also that BC has no shaded areas to speak of. This is not so either as BC has a vigorous rural broadband program and support system.
Currently almost 60% of rural Canadian communities do not have the CRTC’s requisite 50/10 Mbps (download/upload) speeds. This is a misnomer. For the most part, few if any have this service in western Canada. We all have 4G and 3G Networks. But 5G is being worked on, and this will not require a federal government push to accomplish. There are many waiting and paying customers at the end of the 5G connection!
Anecdotally Bell reports that during the pandemic traffic is up 60% for daytime usage and voice traffic is up 200%. So broadband demand is being pushed by events, while some regions can manage this, obviously there is no service for others. Rural and remote broadband is not as if we have a “the last mile” problem here, that was slowly solved a decade or two in the urban and suburban regions. Rural and remote is a matter of covering considerable distances – hundreds and even many-hundreds of kilometers of distance are found between many of remote communities and their nearest fibre junction. If fibre optic lines are decided upon, these need to be buried, meter by meter into the ground, and then raised and some appropriate junction to begin establishing the network for the local connections. And of course, the costs of such construction are significant.
Figure 2 – Installing rural/remote Fiber Optic Lines
Figure 3 : As Rural as it gets: Installing Rural Fibre
Looking at Figure 1 you will notice that the high regions of Canada and the remote areas are using satellites. Here we see that not all projects can use fibre, because of distance even though it may be a preferred solution. Some communities need to be linked with a satellite to a Gigapop in a distant location, to create an effective link. These satellite solutions are range limited; they serve a smaller geographic region which uses dishes at the ground station; this does not extend much beyond the serviced community. The raising of range here is because many of the people in these far-north locations are participating in hunting-gathering activities and may need assistance at some point to retrieve their game or possibly for safety reasons, should they be having some challenges during their hunting-gathering activities. A cell phone will not work here, a satellite phone may be requisite for those involved with these activities. Figures 2 and 3 show a few examples of the complexity of working in rural locations. There are a lot more intervening issues in digging up rural and remote areas simply because of the vast distances involved. Each day brings another challenge!
For a second time this year, the federal government has declared that their Universal Broadband Fund is open for project development and submissions. The call for projects this summer (2020) did not seem to muster much activity. Now it seems that more is possible, however, as most Canadians know, winter is coming and digging or pouring concrete in the high north is just not feasible at this time. The broadband fund at this time is indicated to be $1.75 billion. This amount is thought to be sufficient to link all rural and remote communities by 2023. However, the builders of these networks will have to work together; they will not be able to work in isolation for reasons of distribution of broadband services to a network of communities.
And why is rural broadband important? Rural broadband works on several levels. It improves the Quality of Life for rural residents. They can participate in the digital economy/digital community just like their fellow citizens in urban areas. Rural broadband is also not just for rural residents; it works for others as they are passing through the area via roads and require cellphone, etc. services.
One area of interest for this writer is Highway 12 Manitoba, south of Steinbach, all the way to the Canadian US Border. This is a rural-farm area and there is no cellular service once you get a few kilometers past Steinbach or if you are traveling north from the Canadian/US border. There is a dead zone stretch of about 130 kms or so in this area which is well travelled by tourists, cottagers, truckers, locals, and visitors passing through to/from NW Ontario and the USA.
This region has been hit by several forest fires over the years. We have traveled through one of these forest fires many years ago. We were safe but concerned. Not everyone is as successful in traversing such an event as these forest fires spring up fast and move fast. Local resources are difficult to marshal due to the lack of local cellular services with which to coordinate the volunteer fire departments and the dispersed staff of rural municipalities in the region.
In one recent forest fire in this region, things moved too fast once again to marshal the local resources and one small bridge burned down before the road could be closed. Look at the following video to see what I mean. There is no road closure, not signs and materials with which to shut down the road. Events just moved too fast for the public services to prevent any danger.
Figure 4: Vita Bridge
Figure 5: Car Drives (and Falls) into Burnt-Out Bridge Near Vita Manitoba.
This burn out did not just happen to one vehicle. The video shows the second car going off that bridge and there was another car there already. There was simply not enough time or access to appropriate assets to shut down those roads. Cellular service is needed all along Hwy 12 in Manitoba. It is a major link between NW Ontario and the United States. Post-COVID it will return to being a tourist, farming, and recreation corridor of about 130 kms, most of which currently does not have cellular service.
Figure 6: Two cars burned out due to bridge fire and forest fire in the region, with no safety measures at that time.
Comment: Luckily for these two travelers, the drop was minimal, and no water was flowing here, compared to other bridges found in the region.
While the writer indicates one big region without cellular service along its road network, Canadians can certainly find many more highly travelled regions with no cellular services which present equally dangerous events for our citizens to be traversing during a forest fire or other weather generated critical events.
The target that Canada and CIRA are pursuing is the building of broadband to a 50/10 standard. This standard calls for download speeds of 50 Mbps upload speeds of 10 Mbps. If you check your own home (i.e. a city location ) internet connection you will quickly conclude that this is just not happening at this time, there is a lot of upgrading to do to get to this standard. Rolling out the 5G network will probably accomplish this in urban locations in a few years.
CIRA reports that broadband access has penetrated Canadian urban households at a rate of 85.7% while in rural communities this is only 40.8%. This is the key driver for Universal Broadband Fund.
Now let’s get on with writing our submissions and building partnerships to get at least some of these under-serviced areas lit up in a year or two!