What COVID-19 Reveals About Rural Broadband in Canada

When COVID-19 swept North America this spring, no area of life was left untouched. Businesses, governments, school systems, and other institutions big and small have spent most of this year grappling with the ongoing effects of the global pandemic.

In this blog, we’re going to take a closer look at what COVID-19 has revealed about Canada’s rural broadband access—and what leaders in rural municipalities are doing about it.

Shifts in Healthcare and Education Highlights Gaps in Rural Broadband Access

As we mentioned, no area of life has remained unchanged by COVID-19, but we’ve noticed two areas where rural Canada has faced particularly big shifts as a result of the pandemic: healthcare and education. Those shifts have emphasized a need for reliable internet access, and many rural communities still lack the broadband access they need.

In healthcare, the challenge of treating COVID-19 patients and preventing the spread as much as possible has transformed the healthcare field as a whole. Many people want to avoid doctor’s offices and emergency rooms to prevent exposure, so telehealth has suddenly gone from an intriguing technology to a life-saving option. Seeking care from home for minor illnesses or chronic conditions can reduce the spread of the coronavirus while ensuring sick patients don’t go untreated—as long as those patients have reliable broadband at home.

The ability to access primary care and special physicians virtually benefits everyone, but that access is especially useful for the elderly. With telehealth technologies and reliable broadband, they can choose to “age at home” with safer, more comprehensive home-based care.

Telehealth also provides a way for small, rural communities to fill any healthcare gaps. For example, research shows that the pandemic is taking a toll on people’s mental health—and for good reason. With all the uncertainty surrounding people’s health and financial security, coupled with the isolation of quarantine and social distancing, it makes sense that people would need more access to mental health specialists for support. Telehealth technologies, powered by broadband internet, make that access possible, even if there is a shortage of mental health care providers in a rural municipality.

We see a similar shift in education. Just as patients now seek at-home care, students have found themselves thrust into at-home and online learning as schools remain closed (or only open part-time). Online learning technologies are a wonderful thing—again, only if you have a broadband connection to power them. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for many rural families.

As this Kajeet article from 2018 shows, the “digital divide” was already a concern in Canada before COVID-19 struck. Even before the pandemic, students who lacked at-home internet access were at a disadvantage. Unlike their “connected” peers, they could not interact with teachers online outside of school, complete and submit online assignments, or find supplementary resources to keep them on track.

When COVID-19 forced nearly all learning opportunities online, those students without broadband access had spotty communication with teachers (if any). Many were stuck trying to complete print packets without access to online resources or support.

CBC reports that this digital divide will only continue to widen as schools rely on online learning again in the upcoming school year. As parent Leah Hollohan told CBC, “If you don’t show up to school, you don’t learn, and [trying to do online schooling without adequate internet access] is going to be the equivalent of not showing up.”

Unequal Broadband Access in Rural Canada

Of course, the shift to online healthcare and education is a nationwide shift. The problem is that rural Canadian households are far less likely to have the broadband they need to power those critical technologies in the COVID-19 era.

A broadband study by Competition Bureau Canada found that while most Canadian consumers were “generally happy” with their ISP and internet service, “a significant exception exists for consumers in remote and rural areas of Canada, who typically have fewer, and less modern, options for internet services.”

To take a closer look at the disparity, consider this: the Communications Monitoring Report of 2019 reported that 85.7% of Canadian households had access to the CRTC’s recommended broadband speeds of 50 Mbps or greater. But the Competition Bureau Canada study found 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.”

In a nutshell, COVID-19 has revealed that fast, reliable internet has rapidly gone from a “nice-to-have” privilege to a critical resource—and that rural Canada is woefully underserved in this area.

The Inspiring History of Access Solutions in Rural Canada

This may feel like an overwhelming problem to consider, but this isn’t the first time rural Canadians have faced gaps in access to critical technology—and rural communities have successfully tackled those gaps before. A hundred years ago, it was the telephone network that left many rural Canadians disconnected. But, across Canada, rural cooperatives formed to build those networks and connect their communities.

It was a grassroots effort with great results, and we’re seeing a similar model play out today in the fight for equal broadband access. Communities are forming community-owned broadband networks to provide critical access, power telehealth and education, and even keep the revenues in their community.

Those revenues can have a significant added benefit for small, rural municipalities. Just take a look at this graph from the Communications Monitoring Report 2019:

While revenues from private lines and long-distance calls are declining, broadband revenues are on the rise. In Canada, we saw over $12 billion in revenue from fixed internet alone. By forming and owning their own networks, rural communities ensure their “piece of this pie” stays local and is reinvested in the community.

Decades ago, the creativity, unity, and dedication of rural community leaders resulted in telephone access for all Canadians. We expect the same results for rural broadband access in the years to come. Of course, the sooner that can happen, the better, so let’s talk about what community leaders can do to expedite access for their entire community.

How Community Leaders Can Develop Rural Broadband Solutions

If you’re the leader of a rural Canadian municipality, you may see a need for broadband access and have a desire to find a solution that benefits your entire community. But where should you begin? We’ve found it helpful to tackle the problem in three phases:

  • Phase 1: Identify Your Community’s Needs – As a guide in this process, we start by helping leaders like you consider the unique needs of their rural community. Then, we discuss how to create a business plan and broadband network that generates revenue, stimulates job creation, improves social and education capabilities, allows you to compete globally in the digital economy, and ensures a self-sustaining future for your community.
  • Step 2: Create a Custom Roadmap and Business Model – Next, we help you formulate a business plan for building a self-funded, revenue-generating broadband network. We’ll also create a technical plan for building out the infrastructure necessary to ensure the internet reaches every member of your community.
  • Step 3: Build a High-quality, Revenue-generating Broadband Network – Once you have a plan, we help you execute it and build your broadband network. We can serve as your project manager, prime contractor, and managed service provider as we help you identify and partner with companies experienced in solving your specific problems.

Because we believe no leader should have to shoulder a project of this size on their own, we’re here to serve as a guide every step of the way. If you’d like to connect with a rural broadband expert and discuss the needs of your specific community, contact us to get started. We provide free consultations to help you consider the possibilities and formulate a plan for your community.

Book a time with one of our Community Broadband Networks experts to learn more – https://content.rocknetworks.com/rural-broadband-experts

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