Waterdown Walmart parking lot is ‘The Office’ for family living in internet dead zone

·3 min read

Brad Wallace describes his house, just outside Waterdown, as his family’s “Forever Home.”

For nineteen years now, Brad, his wife Cheryl and their two kids have lived comfortably in the rural residence, enjoying the open space and the peaceful quiet of the countryside.

It’s nearly idyllic. But there’s just one problem: no Wi-Fi.

Try as they might, the Wallace family can’t get access to high-speed internet service.

The lack of connection wasn’t always a problem. In pre-pandemic times, it was an annoyance at best — a constant battle with finicky gadgets and satellite dishes that retailers claimed could finally spark a signal. They get a sliver of cell reception — just enough to send emails and text messages — but that’s about it.

Now, due to lockdown measures that have forced remote work, the lack of connection is crucial. And it’s upended the family’s way of life.

“It’s just brutal — even when we use cellphones we barely get any service,” says Brad, who says the connectivity problems are likely due to the thicket of trees surrounding the home.

To work remotely, Brad drives roughly five minutes to the parking lot outside the Walmart in Waterdown. He sits there in his car from Monday to Friday, sending PDFs and making video calls using the Tim Hortons Wi-Fi. They call it “The Office.”

Their daughter, Lauren, lives in the residence at the University of Guelph by herself since she can’t attend classes from home. She wakes up to a campus almost entirely abandoned, except for a few others in similar situations.

“She calls it prison — that’s how isolating it is,” said Cheryl. “When I pick her up, I ask about all the school buildings on campus; she says she’s never been in any of them. It’s a sad way to have to be schooled, alone like that.”

The family’s situation highlights the difficulties that those living in rural areas face amid the COVID-19 pandemic, where remote work is not as feasible as it can be in the city. An estimated 12 per cent of Ontarians, the majority of whom live in rural or isolated areas, lack high-speed internet — the equivalent of as many as 220,000 households and businesses.

Across Canada, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) estimated in 2016 that barely 40 per cent of rural citizens had access to high-speed internet.

Yet the commodity is increasingly a necessity for all Canadians, regardless of the pandemic. The era of video conferencing and streaming makes a good connection all but essential to daily life. The Wallace family could live without Netflix, Brad says, but video conferencing is different.

In Jan. 2020, Bell Canada announced it would spend about $400 million over the next five years to expand its high-speed internet network in Hamilton, marking the largest digital infrastructure investment in the city’s history. It would bring the possibility of direct fibre network connections to more than 200,000 homes and business locations in both urban and rural parts of the city.

Likewise, in March 2020, the Ontario government promised to devote $315 million in the annual budget to ensure more people have access to high-speed internet.

Hamilton school boards, too, have attempted to give students access to the internet for remote learning purposes. Early in January, when students began online classes following the shuttering of in-person attendance, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board distributed thousands of iPads and remote learning technology that were enabled with data free of charge.

The initiatives are a welcome change for the Wallace family, whose data bills can reach as high as $500 to $700 due to the strain on cell reception. For Brad, it’s a source of frustration he hopes will end soon.

“It’s unbelievable, really, that this is still a problem given where we are in society,” he said.

“They can put a man on the moon but they can’t get internet in Waterdown.”

Jacob Lorinc, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator