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A man uses his mobile device while sitting outside a Rogers store in Toronto's Financial District on June 18, 2018.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Seguin, Ont., resident Francis Bailey carefully monitors his family’s internet usage, limiting FaceTime calls and ensuring that any videos his children watch for school are streamed at the lowest quality available.

Despite his best efforts, overage charges pushed Mr. Bailey’s first internet bill, since COVID-19 forced his family to work and learn from home, to $300. The next one could be north of $500, the Health Canada scientist estimates.

Internet service providers have temporarily waived data caps on most home internet plans in response to the pandemic. But some rural customers such as Mr. Bailey, who use hubs, sticks or MiFi devices (wireless routers that act like mobile WiFi hot spots) to get online, don’t have access to unlimited plans, as carriers say they are concerned that networks in those areas couldn’t handle the increased load.

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With the global health crisis accelerating the shift to a digital world, residents in rural and remote parts of Canada who don’t have access to fast, reliable and affordable home internet fear being left behind, unable to work, learn, stay connected and access virtual health care as readily as their urban peers.

“I only have so much internet before it gets prohibitively expensive,” said Mr. Bailey, whose home is about 200 kilometres north of Toronto, near Georgian Bay. “We can’t be as connected with other people as those in the city, who can have a Zoom call and see their friends and not have to worry.”

Experts say that fast and reliable telecommunications services will be critical to driving the country’s productivity in the coming months and years, as the popularity of e-commerce, online learning and other virtual services is likely to endure even after lockdown orders are lifted.

“ 'Work from home’ is likely to be sustained until the COVID-19 virus is fully contained," the C.D. Howe Institute said in a report published this month, noting that network advancements will be necessary to support the postcrisis economy.

Connectivity has also been cited as one of the challenges to instituting virtual Parliament sessions amid the pandemic, with some MPs in rural ridings worried that unreliable internet access could impede their participation.

The federal government has set a target of 2030 to ensure that all Canadians have access to high-speed internet – defined as 50 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 10 Mbps for uploads. Those are the speeds the government has deemed necessary to “take full advantage of the opportunities offered by the modern internet.”

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Roughly 84 per cent of Canadians have access to unlimited broadband internet at those speeds, according to a report published by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in 2019. In rural communities, that figure falls to 37 per cent, and in First Nations reserves to roughly 28 per cent.

Open Media, an organization that advocates for widespread and inexpensive internet access, has applauded the government’s plan to invest up to $6-billion in expanding high-speed internet to all Canadians. But when the government made the announcement in June, 2019, its targets of bringing the service to 95 per cent of Canadians by 2026 and 100 per cent of Canadians by 2030 seemed too far away, Open Media’s executive director Laura Tribe said.

“That feels even further away now, when we’re realizing how reliant we are on the internet,” Ms. Tribe said.

And in the time that has elapsed since, no further details have been provided as to how the target will be met, she added. “We’ve been waiting for the government to announce how it will fund that, how people apply for the money, how to get shovels in the ground, and it’s been a year and there’s been no action.”

Tony Geheran, chief customer officer at Telus Corp., is also looking for more progress on the government’s planned initiatives.

“Governments love to shout out a big number and put a fancy name to it and then you find it doesn’t get spent and it gets repackaged by the next government," said Mr. Geheran, adding that collaboration between the public and private sectors will be critical to bridging Canada’s digital divide. Government funding can play an important role in enabling projects where a company would otherwise be unable to recoup its investment.

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“We should start now," Mr. Geheran said. “We need to put Canadians to work. We need to get the economy back on its feet after this lockdown and that type of investment is a great way to do that."

Marie-Pier Baril, a spokesperson for the Office of the Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Rural Economic Development, said the government has made “good progress” toward its goal.

More than 200 projects funded by its Connect to Innovate program, which finances the construction of fibre-optic links in rural and remote communities, are under way. Once completed, these projects will bring improved high-speed internet access to more than 975 communities, including 190 Indigenous communities, and benefit up to 390,000 households, Ms. Baril said in an e-mail.

Telecom providers say the challenge in bringing all of rural Canada online is the high cost associated with building out fibre-optic networks to sparsely populated areas.

“Canada’s a big place," said James Maunder, a spokesperson for rural internet provider Xplornet Communications Inc. “It’s the second largest land mass in the world, and when you get out into rural areas you’re facing geographies of about four people per square kilometre. What you need is a mix of technologies.”

One promising solution is fixed wireless technology, which allows for a fibre-optic network to be extended with wireless signals. Last week, Bell announced it has sped up the rollout of its fixed-wireless home internet service in response to the health crisis and is now on track to reach 137,000 more homes than it had planned by the end of April.

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That will bring the total number of homes that can access the service to 387,000. The company’s goal is to bring the technology to one million locations.

“The cost to get fibre to all of those locations would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per location,” said Stephen Howe, the company’s chief technology officer.

Fixed wireless technology is much cheaper and faster to install than bringing fibre-optic cables to each house individually, although the 25 Mbps download speeds that Bell currently offers to its fixed-wireless customers fall short of the government’s target.

However, that should change, Mr. Howe said. “Technology will continue to evolve and speeds will increase. … It’s just a matter of time."

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