If Canada's Internet Is So Great, Why Are So Many People Still Without It?

Canada’s broadband internet experience was ranked third best in the world, but access remains worse than it seems.

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Sep 19 2015, 11:00am

Image: Threthny/Flickr

A report released this week from market research firm Ovum ranks Canada's broadband internet experience as the third best in the world, with an estimated 85 per cent of households eligible for broadband service. But in reality, the high quality of service considered broadband still only exists for a portion of Canadians—a problem referred to as the digital divide.

Over the past several years, reports on the state of Canadian connectivity have been mixed. While the CRTC and some industry analysts like Ovum paint a rosy picture of a world-leading nation of online innovators, other studies say Canada is expensive and fundamentally split along geographic and socioeconomic lines.

One high-profile 2013 study from Harvard University was particularly blunt, and found that Canada's internet access is slow and poorly priced, relative to similarly affluent countries.

"Canadian urban cities are so well connected… but a lot of the rural areas really lack even basic connectivity," said Western University sociologist Anabel Quan-Haase, who has studied Canada's digital divide. "And this isn't just the far North, this is all across, for instance, south-western Ontario."

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Right now, any Canadian connection exceeding 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads is considered broadband, compared to a recently raised minimum of 25 Mbps in the US. The CRTC does have a separate national speed "target" of 5 Mbps, but this target is not related to its technical definition of broadband.

In and around large cities, service generally far exceeds these minimums, while more rural areas often struggle to meet them.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said late last month that if re-elected his government would invest $200M over seven years in expanding high speed internet in rural areas. This is in addition to a previous pledge to bring high-speed internet to 280,000 new homes by 2017, a goal the administration recently raised to 350,000.

But the issue isn't purely about distributing physical lines. "People tend to focus on access," Quan-Haase said, "but we've found that access is just one barrier among many… Some may have a basic understanding of what the internet could do for them, but they don't have a really deep understanding."

"I think if we looked in the rural areas... and particularly marginalized populations then my sense is that we would find a very different picture"

Without reliable internet access, people in rural communities can have a hard time completing basic tasks, like paying a bill or submitting a job application, she said. And even though email and basic web surfing don't require a high speed connection, many of the most bandwidth-intensive activities, like streaming audio and video, are becoming essential to social and economic success.

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That's an important point as the CRTC tries to determine what level of internet access is now necessary to allow participation in the new economy. If it determines that broadband internet is part of the suite of basic telecommunications services, this could trigger a jump in government subsidies for broadband expansion.

Ovum did not respond to a request for comment on its survey methods—but to Quan-Haase, it doesn't seem credible to call Canada the third-best country for broadband given the amount of work that still remains to be done.

"I think if we looked in the rural areas... and particularly marginalized populations," Quan-Haase said, "then my sense is that we would find a very different picture."

Correction, September 21: A previous version of this article stated that 85 percent of Canadian households have broadband, according to a report. Rather, the report claimed that 85 percent of Canadian households are eligible for broadband service. Motherboard regrets the error.