Canada’s Little Secret. Rural Internet Is Slowwww

You’ve been holed up in your city condo for months worried that if touching the elevator buttons doesn’t make you sick then the shared ventilation from 47 floors certainly will.  And then you decide to shake things up; your employer has said that working from home has no end date, so you take all of your money and buy a 50 acre farm north of your city, where your closest neighbour is a speck on the horizon.  Finally, beautiful fresh air and social distancing measured in kilometres instead of metres and then, feeling pretty smitten with yourself, you head to your first ever, dedicated home office that’s not a dining table. You call in to your first zoom meeting as a land baron with the team back in the city, except, wait for it, you can’t connect. What?

Perfect except for one tiny detail that was not included in the sell sheet – no high-speed internet.

At a time when Canadians are counting more than ever on reliable broadband service, residents of rural areas must cope with starkly inferior access to internet connectivity compared to cities. And the gap has grown during the year of the pandemic.

New data from the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) suggests that at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the median download speed in rural areas was about 5.42 Mbps, far behind the median 26.16 Mbps in cities. As lockdowns took hold and Canadians worked increasingly from home, city dwellers benefited from big improvements, while those living in the country had to cope with speeds that improved at a much slower rate. 

By March 2021 the median speed in cities grew to 51.09 Mbps, compared to about 9.74 Mbps in rural areas, meaning the disparity grew substantially during the pandemic. “As we’ve seen in the pandemic, internet access is an essential service and an issue of social equity,” said CIRA president and CEO, Byron Holland. “Whether it’s virtual health care, virtual schooling, or virtual office work, it’s not right that many people who live in the country don’t have broadband that’s at least comparable to what’s available in cities.”

waiting waiting waiting

The disparity is all the more consequential, given the widely reported movement of urban residents to smaller centers during the pandemic. Both the federal and provincial governments, as well as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) have recently made major funding announcements to improve broadband. CIRA welcomes the new initiatives and will continue to monitor improvements closely, but believes it is essential that the gap be closed.

Based on test results generated between March 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021 from a total of 198,921 urban tests and 137,158 rural tests, over the first year of the pandemic, urban internet users saw average download speeds increase to about 50 Mbps, while rural speeds did see steady improvement until January 2021.

It’s not all bad news and improvements are on the way. In October, the Canada Infrastructure Bank announced $2 billion in available financing for broadband deployment projects. In November, the federal government launched its $1.75 billion Universal Broadband Fund, which has since announced funding for several projects under its Rapid Response stream. Since August, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has awarded millions for rural and remote broadband projects as part of its $750 million Broadband Fund and in January 2021, Elon Musk’s satellite internet provider Starlink began beta testing in Canada.

Forever and ever and ever.

Since the pandemic started, rural speeds have been between one-fifth and one-tenth of urban speeds. From March to December rural download speeds hovered around 5.5 Mbps, compared to roughly 50 Mbps in urban Canada. Measured urban download speeds have nearly doubled since the start of the pandemic. In March 2020, the median download speed was 26.16 Mbps, compared to 51.09 Mbps in March 2021. For rural users, median upload speeds have been roughly one-tenth urban speeds for most of the pandemic. In December, that gap began to close, with rural upload speeds beginning to show steady improvement.

The data was gathered using CIRA’s Internet Performance Test. Since the launch of the program as a public service, Canadians have completed over 950,000 tests. CIRA is currently helping dozens of local governments and organizations who collectively represent over 1000 communities across Canada heat map connectivity in their region.

You could always write a letter

CIRA is a member-based, not-for-profit organization best known for managing the .ca internet domain name on behalf of all Canadians.