Rob Faris, research director of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, says broadband Internet connections are "essential infrastructure for competitive nations." Without access to these high-speed pipes, he says, communities "will be at a disadvantage."
Drive one hour outside most major Canadian cities and digital highways quickly turn to dirt roads filled with potholes. About 20 per cent of Canadians live in rural settings and about 60 per cent of those people have access to broadband services, primarily through satellite or wireless connections. Only a minority of these rural residents, however, actually use high-speed broadband because the services are typically too expensive or undependable.
"In rural Canada you click on a website, then get up and go the bathroom and hope that when you return the site is up," says Christina Benty, mayor of Golden, a ski town of 4,300 in southeastern B.C. near the provincial boundary with Alberta. The town has become so frustrated with the slow Internet access that it is spending tens of thousands of dollars out of its own budget to begin building a local high-speed broadband network.
She says the upgrade is crucial for getting new businesses and residents. "When people choose where they want to live, they want to be connected," she says.
Some of Canada's provinces have invested heavily in new rural networks, but the pace of expansion has been patchy and slow. A growing number of communities, such as Golden and Olds, are digging up the ground and laying the fibre optic cable themselves. It is a huge and risky gamble, but many believe it's necessary.
"We believe this is going to future-proof us," says Joe Gustafson, a part-time pharmacist who helped spearhead a six-year campaign in Olds to raise millions of dollars in private investment for a fibre optic network. He says the initiative, which has received some money from the Alberta government, is crucial for attracting new businesses and professionals. "Then you'll have recreational facilities that are full. You'll have schools that are full."
Although Canada was once ranked among the world's most advanced providers of cable and telephone line services, it has been surpassed by many other developed countries. Catherine Middleton, an associate professor at Ryerson University and a leading expert in broadband research, says innovation has been limited by Canada's small number of major telecommunications players, which include BCE Inc., Rogers Communications Inc., Telus Corp and Shaw. "They settled in a very comfortable kind of competition and they didn't innovate very much," she says.
But telecom companies say satellite and wireless are the only economically viable technologies for delivering high-speed Internet into remote regions. However, each of these services have their limitations.
Satellite signals are available throughout most of Canada, but the service is often an expensive exercise in frustration. For simple tasks that don't consume a lot of data, such as e-mail, satellite is dependable. But streaming videos or downloading large files pushes up against strict download limits. Users who trip over the limit are typically penalized by having their access speed reduced for at least a day.
A few years ago, Andy Weilenmann invested $3,000 in a satellite dish to offer Internet access to the mostly foreign guests who stay at his small, four-cabin mountain resort near Golden. He pays $120 a month for the link, but it often shuts down because guests exceed his daily limit of 200 megabytes, the equivalent of downloading about 50 songs. "If you can't offer access to the Internet, people will not want to book rooms," he says.
Wireless service also has its challenges. Toronto technology consultant Jim Samuel planned to work with global clients from his new home in Hastings County, Ont., when he and his wife moved there two years ago. The house was a dead zone, however, because wireless signals were blocked by 100-year-old maple trees. When Mr. Samuel, 60, needed to communicate with clients, he hopped into his car and drove 30 minutes to a parking lot in Belleville. Once there, he moved to the back of his car, plugged an Internet data stick into his laptop and began sending large files to clients as far away as Japan.
"I just kept working out of the car. I guess I was hoping the reception would improve," he says.
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