Big Telcos Shouldn’t Connect Rural Canada — Here’s Why

We hope you enjoy this special feature article from our CEO, Joe Hickey. Joe is passionate about the rural broadband cause in Canada and wrote this piece to share his perspective on the best way to bridge our digital divide. Do you agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Broadband has been a critical service for Canadians for years now, but nothing has brought that need front-and-centre quite like COVID-19. More people than ever before are learning from home, working remotely, and using telehealth technologies to connect with healthcare providers. Those things all require a strong broadband connection, so we’re finally seeing broadband — and the lack thereof in rural Canada — get a spotlight in major news headlines and political conversations.

In general, that’s a great thing. With more eyes on the problem, there will be more resources devoted to the solutions. But we have to be careful. Having an issue in the spotlight can create a sense of urgency, resulting in a temptation to “stop the bleeding” and get rural Canada connected however we can. While I’m all for stop-gap solutions to get Canadians connected now, I also hope we’ll take the time to slow down and make long-term plans that can benefit rural Canadian communities for decades to come.

In this blog, I want to consider why big telcos are not the best solution for long-term connectivity in rural Canada and present a better recipient for the increased broadband funding available today.

Canada’s Urban-Rural Digital Divide Is Widening

COVID-19 may have put Canada’s urban-rural digital divide in the spotlight, but it’s not a new problem. Even before the spread of the coronavirus, the Communications Monitoring Report of 2019 reported that 85.7% of Canadian households have access to speeds of 50 Mbps or greater. But this 2019 study from Competition Bureau Canada clarified that “while approximately 99% of Canadian homes in large population centres have access to the 50 Mbps and higher speed services associated with modern cable or fibre optic networks, only 37% of rural and remote homes have access to these connections.”

Already, urban Canadians were far more likely to have access to fast, reliable internet. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has only led to a widening of that digital divide. According to CIRA, the median download speed for urban Canadians in March, when the pandemic first hit, was 26.16 Mbps. For rural Canadian communities, it was just 5.42 Mbps — not nearly enough download speed for the important technologies necessary for work, schooling, and healthcare in today’s world.

By July, the median download speed for urban areas had already nearly doubled to 51.54 Mbps. In rural areas, it continued to languish at 5.62 Mbps. In March, urban Canadians had roughly 5x the internet speed of their rural neighbours. Today, they have more like 10x the power for connecting, working, and learning from home.

When COVID-19 hit and all Canadians needed more bandwidth, the big telcos were able to step up and improve access… but only for urban areas. Rural Canada hasn’t been so lucky. The gap that already existed is continuing to widen, and rural community leaders are trying to figure out how to get their community connected with fast, reliable internet.

Why Big Telcos Aren’t the Answer

Big telcos haven’t solved the problem for rural Canada yet, and they’re not the solution moving forward, either. Three key problems reveal why we need to be cautious about pouring money into large telcos who claim they can connect rural Canadian communities.

Problem #1: They won’t connect everyone.

Even when big telcos do service rural communities, they rarely connect every member of those communities. It just doesn’t make much financial sense for them to do so. These companies have to invest in far more infrastructure to connect far fewer customers than they do in urban centres.

As a result, when large telcos work in rural communities, you still end up with many Canadians who struggle with lower quality internet (and higher prices!) than what’s being offered in urban centres. Still, others find themselves in the “not worth reaching” category and don’t receive service at all.

Problem #2: They take away the customer’s freedom of choice.

In a recent article from Shaw, the large telco laid out a common argument of bigger companies. To protect their investment, Shaw is opposed to wholesale access that would allow more providers to pay to enter the network. This ensures a region only has one option for their internet — the big telco who built the network — for years to come.

According to CRTC, Canadians living in rural communities have half as many ISPs to choose from as their urban counterparts. That lack of competition only hurts rural Canadians, because ISPs simply don’t have the pressure to provide reliable internet or excellent customer service. CCTS reports that internet-related issues have increased 139.5% over the last five years. Those complaints are most often concerning the loss or degradation of service, such as slow speeds and outages. Only competition can curb these issues, and big telcos are opposed to that competition.

When large telcos actively oppose wholesale access, they don’t just harm some hypothetical future competitor — they can actually push out existing ISPs in an area. Currently, many rural communities in Canada are serviced by ISPs owned and operated by small business owners who live and work in their community. There are over 250 of these small ISPs across Canada! If those companies are forced to close, rural Canadians’ already limited options will further shrink, leaving them with no local provider and only one choice: a large company in a distant city.

Problem #3: They divert potential broadband funding from communities.

Like I said before, COVID-19 has made rural broadband a hot topic. Canada currently has a $750 million CRTC Broadband Fund and a potentially $6 billion Universal Broadband Fund, each dedicated to solving the urban-rural divide. Big telcos who haven’t solved this problem in the past would love to now tap into that potential revenue and become the sole provider in rural Canadian communities in the process.

I want to help fellow Canadians understand that we can connect rural Canada without paying big companies to do so! Instead of funding large corporations, we can give these funds to rural communities and let those leaders decide who they want to service their community for years to come.

Why the Government Should Fund Rural Canadian Communities

By giving funds to rural Canadian communities instead of big telcos, Canada can put the problem-solving power in the hands of community leaders. Local leaders will be the ones most invested in finding a solution that works for their community now and well into the future, and the funds would give them the power to not rely on a single corporation. Instead, they can plan and build solutions that are…

  • Universal — Leaders can ensure access for every member of their community.
  • Profitable and community-owned — Sustainable business plans can generate revenue and keep that revenue in the small communities where every dollar makes a difference.
  • Future-proof — Community leaders can ensure the technology used is built to last well beyond the time it takes to recoup the investment.
  • Customized — Local leaders are better suited than big urban telcos to know the opportunities and challenges unique to their community and can, in turn, create customized solutions that work for them.

Equip Rural Leaders to Solve Rural Problems

Rural leaders know and serve their communities best. Instead of leaving big telco execs in distant urban centres to solve problems for rural Canada, we should all work to equip those rural leaders to find, fund, and build solutions that truly benefit their community.

That’s the idea behind ROCK Networks’ end-to-end program for building community broadband networks in partnership with local leaders. We do this in three steps:

  • Step 1: We work with leaders to identify their community’s strengths and opportunities.
  • Step 2: We help create a custom roadmap and business model for revenue-generating, community-owned broadband networks.
  • Step 3: We connect communities to trustworthy partners who can build high-quality, rural broadband networks with high-speed internet access for all.

In each step, we help leaders take ownership of the solution without feeling overwhelmed. We guide them through the process until everyone in a community is connected, backed by a business plan that makes sense for the long haul.

If you’re a leader in a rural Canadian community, please know you don’t have to turn to the big telcos for help! We’re here to help you find long-term solutions that benefit your community for decades to come.

Book a time with one of our Community Broadband Networks experts to learn more — 

Download our FREE Community Broadband Networks Guide

Let us help you plan and build a revenue-generating broadband network and lead your community into a sustainable future.

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