Internet, cell service frustrations still rule in rural N.L., despite promises to fix it

·7 min read
Eldred Allen owns and operates Bird's Eye, a drone company based in Rigolet, Labrador. Rigolet has had broadband investments in the past, but Allen says internet speeds are still poor. (Submitted by Eldred Allen - image credit)
Eldred Allen owns and operates Bird's Eye, a drone company based in Rigolet, Labrador. Rigolet has had broadband investments in the past, but Allen says internet speeds are still poor. (Submitted by Eldred Allen - image credit)

Eldred Allen can sum up his internet service pretty simply.

"Barely functional," he said from his home in Rigolet, in Nunatsiavut, Labrador's Inuit territory.

The sentiment is backed up by stats: tests to check his internet speeds turned up a sluggish 2.1 megabits per second (Mbps) download speeds, and upload speeds of 0.4 Mbps.

Those speeds — which for all practical purposes can't sustain a Zoom call — are standing in the way of Allen's business, and keeping him in a world where snail mail trumps email.

He runs a drone company, Bird's Eye, that supplies footage and services to clients all over the world. But most of the time, the 4K video and other large files he's working with have to be sent to them on USB flash drives via Canada Post.

"It would be impossible for me to upload it and share it online," he said.

Allen's internet speeds are also a far cry from the federal government's 2019 pledge to bring broadband speeds of 50 Mpbs downloading and 10 Mbps uploading to all Canadians — connectivity about 84 per cent of the country's population currently has, according to the CRTC.

Eldred Allen/Bird's Eye Inc.
Eldred Allen/Bird's Eye Inc.

Despite decades of promises — and about $6 billion spent in the last six years, according to the 2021 federal budget — Rigolet and many other rural and remote parts of Canada remain on the dark side of the digital divide, with the CRTC estimating only 40 to 45 per cent of rural Canadians enjoy 50/10 Mbps speeds. For Indigenous communities, that drops even further, to about 25 per cent.

Some of the billions in broadband cash has been invested in Labrador's north coast, and Allen recalls the brief window of time when his internet sped up. But with the improvements, more people signed up for internet packages, and he said that increased demand slowed the service well below the 5/1 Mbps speeds promised.

"When you can't send emails — just text emails to people —you know that those numbers aren't correct," he said.

Promises from all parties

Canada's geography, and its people flung far across it, play a big role in the continued challenge of getting the necessary infrastructure in place, even as the urgency to do so increases exponentially with online classes and working from home.

"We know this has been a major issue for decades. And it's only been further emphasized by the pandemic that the importance and priority needs to be placed on solving those connectivity challenges," said Barb Carra, the CEO of Cybera, an Albertan non-profit group that looks to drive economic growth through digital means.

Each of the major federal parties flag broadband on their election platforms: both the NDP and Conservatives state they want high-speed internet available to all Canadians by 2025. In the 2021 budget, the Liberal Party said it's aiming to hit that in 2030, with its election platform promising to put pressure on Canada's big telecom companies to increase their broadband rollout plans.

No matter the party, "I think the goals and timelines are a little bit aspirational," said Carra.

"I think based on what we've seen happen so far, in terms of things actually getting into the ground, it's probably going to take a little bit longer than that."

Looking to the stars

Solving the issue may not totally involve the ground at all.

"If we only put our eggs in one basket, and we think, all connectivity problems can only be solved by building fibre to the home and putting fibre in the ground, then we're not innovating," said Carra.

One area to keep an eye on will be outer space, she said, where technology is ramping up to increase internet services for rural Canada from low-Earth orbit satellites, like those from Elon Musk's Starlink.

SpaceX, Twitter
SpaceX, Twitter

Allen has been eyeing a costly Starlink package as a possibility for his business, "but it's unfortunate that someone in Canada has to look at, you know, supporting and giving their money to a billionaire from the United States so that they can access reliable Internet speeds," he said.

"That's something that should be coming from within Canada."

Fundraise it yourself

There are other ways to innovate without Elon Musk.

But leaving connectivity infrastructure up to telecom companies to build on their own probably isn't it, said Carra, who noted for remote places, "the profits and profit margins are often too low to incentivize this."

People living in two tiny communities on Newfoundland's Port au Port Peninsula know that all too well.

About 500 people combined call Mainland and Three Rock Cove home, and when they petitioned Bell Aliant to build a cellphone tower, they were told it didn't make financial sense for the company to do so.

But locals were tired of a lack of cell service stifling small business and tourism, as well as a spate of close calls involving everything from fishermen losing motors or scary winter commutes.

"One year … I ended up on top of a snowbank, completely stuck, with no possibility and very little visibility and no way to call anyone," said Catherine Fenwick, who works in Mainland as the executive director of the local francophone organization ARCO.

Cybera
Cybera

The communities banded together and, along with another francophone group, availed of a provincial government program to get their tower built. The program combined money from Bell, provincial and federal funds, and a catch: the communities would also have to come up with 15 per cent of the final bill, totalling around $80,000.

A fundraising effort in 2019 that saw everything from charity gas pumping to a GoFundMe page paid off, and the tower went live in 2020.

But Fenwick said the tower's technology outpaced many people's cellphones or plans, resulting in weeks spent on the phone with Bell to fix it

"I was frustrated. And it took a lot of trial and error to figure out how to get connected to that particular tower," she said.

It's still far from smooth service in Mainland and Three Rock Cove, but it's a vast improvement, and better than other areas of the Port au Port Peninsula where spotty coverage and a dearth of internet are still norms.

One former Port au Port resident — who still lives nearby, but in an area with better connectivity — is helping with another push to bring better internet to some of the peninsula's most lacking communities.

For Jeffrey Young, not yet in his 30s, it's about the future of the area, which suffers from the same drain of youth plaguing much of Newfoundland and Labrador. Young works from home, and sees the potential for that to happen on the Port au Port.

"I can literally work anywhere in the world, as long as I have high-speed internet," he said.

"As soon I don't have high-speed Internet, I can't work. So with these online opportunities, people can go back home to live and work."

Young, a director of the francophone organization Réseau de développement économique et d'employabilité de Terre-Neuve-et-Labrador, is working with telecom company Eastlink to bring broadband to the peninsula, a process he said has been stalled somewhat by the federal election — even as each party promises to fix the problem.

A combination of community activism and speaking out on the issue may be what's needed to speed up rural Canada's connectivity issues, said Barra, putting pressure on both governments and companies to do more.

"This is a fundamental problem that we all need to solve together," she said.

And in places like Mainland, where that activism has paid off, there are no regrets.

"If you're living in a place where you have access to cell service and good cell service, you're lucky, because there are still a lot of communities out there who don't have it," said Fenwick.

"But it's worth fighting for. And if I had to do it again, I would. Without even thinking about it."

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