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Coronavirus 'new normal' causing internet disruptions for rural Canadians

Shruti Shekar
·Telecom & Tech Reporter
·5 min read
Young woman using a laptop in house. Social media. Streaming video.

Despite telecom carriers indicating their preparedness, city and rural-based customers working from home continue to face internet disruptions and long wait times to speak to customer representatives, due to COVID-19. Experts say instead of blaming the carriers during this unprecedented time, Canadians, especially in rural areas, need better network infrastructure and more carrier options to get on board with what is becoming the “new normal.”

Ramona Pringle, an associate professor at Ryerson University, said part of the reason internet services are slower than what people are used to is that people are trying to create “enterprise-level solutions” for their work-from-home setup.

“People in the city are trying to boost their own system and the slowdown is on material delivery,” she said, adding that many delivery options for hardware have gone from next-day deliveries to week-long waits.

But the real challenge, Pringle said, is for rural communities where internet services are often spotty to begin with. She said most communities in more remote locations do not have many carrier options and most connections are fixed wired services with incredibly slow speeds.

“For communities where they weren’t able to do a lot of the things that have become the new normal to begin with, the expectation that they’d be able to do them now and that there’s a greater demand is just a little bit of a fairy tale,” she said.

“This speaks to a larger concern of the disparity that is there between who actually has access to high-speed networks versus who doesn’t.”

The federal government said in Budget 2019 it was going to invest in resources to connect 100 per cent of Canadians to high-speed internet by 2030.

Pringle indicated that now is a perfect example of how urgent the government needs to act on connecting those who don’t have access to what the CRTC declared a basic human right in 2016.

“I think it was easy to take that for granted in a lot of ways until now, when people are in their houses and society has shifted online and you need this in order to be able to participate in a meaningful way, in order to put food on the table or continue schooling and not feel completely and utterly isolated from people,” she said.

Independent carriers can’t take on so many customers

On March 26, independent internet service provider TekSavvy said it is laying off 130 employees and raising rates by $5, partly because of COVID-19, but also because of a pending court challenge on wholesale rates.

Wholesale rates are paid by competitors — such as TekSavvy or Distributel — to get access to high-speed networks of larger telecommunications companies like Bell, Rogers, and Shaw

“There’s already a huge increase in usage going on that we’ve seen since September. For us, it is about 20 per cent more,” Andy Kaplan-Myrth, TekSavvy's vice-president of regulatory and carrier affairs, said in an interview.

“We basically can’t add capacity fast enough.”

Kaplan-Myrth explained that laying off employees and having to raise prices was going to happen at some point because of the court challenge, but the coronavirus expedited the process.

“After the announcement was made last year we reduced prices and a lot of people were asking how long would we be able to sustain ourselves. We really thought we could last longer through this year,” he said. “Basically what COVID-19 has done is accelerated us to the end of the year.”

Matt Stein, CEO of Distributel, said in an interview that his company also faces unprecedented challenges trying to add capacity when having to pay inflated rates for wholesale internet.

“It’s really unfortunate because it means that it’s that much more expensive for us to add capacity,” he said. “I certainly don’t think that the capacity issues are just a small company’s or wholesaler’s issue. Everybody is dealing with the capacity issue.”

In rural and remote areas, Stein said that customers are being harder hit because their infrastructure is not as efficient and new, and as a result is unreliable in connecting to a network and having fast speeds.

“The technology is just not out there,” he said. “If you live in a large city the technology [any carrier] would use allows you to have really high bandwidth. The problem in rural and remote areas is you may have 5MB service, which is efficient for one PC to watch Netflix. Now you have five people in that house trying to use it.”

In an interview, Dwayne Winseck, director of the Canadian Media Concentration Research Project, said he wasn’t surprised customers have been waiting up to four hours to get through to customer service representative.

“Call centres are now basically decommissioned and whatever staff are doing it remotely, working from home like everybody else. The staff is reduced and these things are to be expected. I don’t think the carriers need to be singled out for any special criticism in this,” Winseck said.

He added that because independent carriers are being stifled by wholesale rates, there needs to be government intervention to foster more competition so customers have more options for services.

“This is a real problem, here is where we need to have some strong intervention to move things along,” he said. “We need to have sterner measures to bring about expressed will of Parliament and the regulator to foster greater competition through the wholesale access regime.”

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