House Call with Carol Hughes

Northern internet woes magnified by pandemic

Expensive, sub-standard internet service was already a problem for many Northerners, but as we adapt to the pandemic and are asked to do more remotely, some households are discovering their service either can’t handle the demand or is punitively expensive once their data limit is exceeded. The problem has reached a fever pitch and the only way it will be fixed is if the government prescribes it.

There’s no doubt we are doing more from home and relying on the internet to get a lot of that done. Whether for entertainment, education or work, the signal that connects us has become vital to our ability to go about our days. In cities, many providers have given customers additional data in recognition of the extraordinary demands placed on households. However, this is not the case in many rural and Northern communities.

Here we see incremental increases and huge overage bills. When the government provides this sort of unequal opportunity for things like social programs, they end up in court, but the market capitalism sensibilities of the pre-pandemic era always forgave the big telecom companies. The problem has its roots in the dominance of a small number of corporate interests in the spectrum auctions that provides bandwidth for these companies to operate within. Most of their efforts have, naturally, gone to providing service in large population centres where the return on their investment is maximized. Sparsely populated areas have always been left behind in this scenario and government after government have been unable to address the problem or displayed much interest in doing so.

Now we have arrived at a point where we are leaning on this technology to maintain productivity. Spotty and expensive internet service, which I have long argued is holding back our region from its true potential, is hampering our economic interests. In the early days of the pandemic, the prime minister specifically addressed banks, calling on them to respond to their clients’ needs in unparalleled times. The same needs to be done for telecom companies.

To their credit, some big providers have temporarily adjusted their plans to reflect the needs of their customers during the pandemic. Unfortunately, these benefits have not been universal, largely bypassing rural and Northern communities. Of the big three, Bell has offered its customers the least.

When contacted about the issue, Bell indicates it simply doesn’t have the capacity to extend more data to customers in sparsely populated areas for fear of clogging the system. At the same time, they are allowing customers to consume additional data and charging them for it. In some instances, internet bills are larger than a mortgage payment, highlighting how ridiculously expensive this service is outside Canada’s major centres. In addition to that, they are accepting new hub internet customers despite claims of limited capacity.

New Democrats see the issue as urgent and want to bring it to the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology on an emergency basis. Since the internet has now been identified as an essential service it must be available to all at a reasonable rate and with appropriate speed. Also, it appears the government needs a more forceful nudge and the committee may be able to provide that.

Going forward, if the government is unable to move providers like Bell to expand their capacity in less populated regions, they must look for companies that will when they hold future bandwidth auctions. This pandemic has tested our capacity on many fronts. Some of the revelations have been surprising. Expensive and sub-standard internet in rural and Northern areas is not. If the government is unwilling to champion this cause by way of marching orders for the sector, it should consider helping those customers who have little choice but to consume expensive data during these unprecedented times.