Rural Canadians who rely on mobile networks for their home internet service are concerned about hefty overage charges and slower speeds as governments and health authorities urge people to stay home amid the global coronavirus pandemic.
Although internet providers such as BCE Inc.'s Bell Canada, Rogers Communications Inc., Telus Corp. and others have temporarily waived data caps on home internet plans, those who live outside of urban centres and don’t have access to high-speed internet infrastructure may not be getting the same relief.
For instance, Bell and Rogers customers who use hubs, sticks and MiFi devices at home to connect to the internet are still subject to overage fees, although Bell is offering those customers 10 gigabytes of additional data and a $10 credit.
Residents in rural areas such as the District of Parry Sound, Ont., more than 200 kilometres north of Toronto, are concerned about racking up big bills now that they’re forced to work remotely while the kids are home from school. Meanwhile, internet speeds in the area, which were low to begin with, have slowed, according to the West Parry Sound SMART Community Network, an organization working to expand high-speed internet throughout the region.
“The speeds have dropped down as the volume’s gone up, and now it’s kind of all day long as opposed to just in the evenings," said Lis McWalter, the organization’s chair and a resident of Carling, Ont. “And even at the best of times we don’t get the speed that’s promised.”
Francis Bailey – a Health Canada scientist who lives in Seguin, Ont. – pays $130 for 100 gigabytes of data a month from Rogers, although he says he haggled to get the price down from $260.
“That [data] runs out in non-pandemic situations,” said Mr. Bailey, adding that during a normal month he tends to use up his allotment by the last two or three days. Each additional gigabyte costs $4, Mr. Bailey said.
Ms. McWalter is concerned that as classes move online, rural students whose families don’t have access to adequate internet connections will be disadvantaged.
“It just really creates a haves and have-nots situation," Ms. McWalter said.
Additionally, the global health pandemic has made it more vital than ever for people to be able to stay informed and connected to others, she added.
In a statement issued last week, Bell said it would like to provide its Turbo Hub, Turbo Stick and MiFi customers with unlimited data, but it cannot.
“During this unprecedented situation, the demands on wireless networks have been significantly heightened,” the company said. “Providing unlimited usage to all Turbo Hub, Turbo Stick and MiFi customers would put wireless network performance at risk during a critical time for Canadians.”
A Rogers spokeswoman said its engineers and technicians are working to add network capacity and manage traffic so that customers can stay connected.
“We are not able to offer unlimited data on our Rocket Sticks at this time, as this may create undue pressure on our network in rural and remote areas, impacting our first responders and essential services,” Sarah Schmidt said in an e-mail.
Sascha Segan, lead mobile analyst for technology publication PCMag, said that wired cable and fibre networks have more bandwidth available to them than mobile networks do.
“Cable is built for that 8 p.m. hour when every home has someone streaming Netflix to a TV while someone else is playing Fortnite upstairs,” Mr. Segan said.
In contrast, 4G LTE networks have a much lower capacity and can only handle a fraction of their users streaming video all at the same time, Mr. Segan said.
“They aren’t designed for everyone to use the network constantly and heavily,” he said, adding that to increase bandwidth, carriers would have to build additional cell sites.