An analysis of internet access in Gravenhurst and the Muskoka region | Connected North
13/05/19

An analysis of internet access in Gravenhurst and the Muskoka region

Story original found on: MuskokaRegion.com

GRAVENHURST — “It’s very expensive, it’s very poorly designed and people are very frustrated.”

Stuart Morley is the executive director of the Parry Sound Muskoka Community Network. He helps businesses adopt new technologies and expand the way they use the internet in their practices.

But he says internet access in rural Ontario is often limited.

“With the system the government has, because it’s left it up to the private sector, our cellphone services are very expensive compared to the rest of the world, and our internet is very expensive,” he said.

Morley explained the different ways people can connect to the internet. The first is through fibre — which is expensive but delivers fast speeds. Another is through microwave towers, which work well with satellites. These are more cost-effective but can be impacted by the weather. A more practical option is through fixed wireless towers — but for smaller internet service providers, this is capital-intensive upfront, he said.

For residents in rural Ontario, it can be challenging to connect due to their geographic location and high prices, said Morley.

Bigger internet service providers like Bell and Rogers have a lot of fibre but often don’t tell people where it’s hidden because it’s expensive, so they use it as a last resort, he said.

Although the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has announced $750 million in funding to help people access the internet, “Even that’s a drop in the bucket. It’s such a tiny amount compared to the demand,” said Morley.

Muskoka is not technically considered part of northern Ontario but also doesn’t receive the extra funds that eastern Ontario does, said Morley.

“Meanwhile, the Ontario government announced kids now have to do online courses. It’s great in the city, it’s great if the kids are at school, but a lot of kids up in the rural areas don’t have decent internet at home to be able to do this,” he said.

On April 24, Bell announced it is expanding its services across Muskoka and in Haliburton county. Gravenhurst’s mayor, Paul Kelly, said in an interview that although this will improve people’s access, prices are still a problem.

“The vast majority of people would say (internet access) probably is a necessity in today’s world,” he said. “The extended problem with that, of course, is even to access the internet, you’ve got to have a computer. Low-income families probably don’t even have a computer to begin with, and that’s a challenge.”

Kelly also mentioned the Ontario government’s new mandatory online courses and said these will put rural students at a disadvantage compared to urban students.

“I think it’s something we all need to strive toward recognizing: this should be available and accessible to as many people as possible, and it shouldn’t be just about cost.”

Gravenhurst Against Poverty is a group that aims to spread awareness and find solutions to the problems facing low-income earners. Rick Gold and Jeanne Tucker are both members of the organization and said internet access is essential in society today.

“If you want reliable internet, something like $90 a month, it’s ridiculous. That’s a lot of money,” said Tucker.

They both said that if internet service providers offered deals for people who can prove they are low-income earners, this would help them access information and vital resources.

“Socializing, if you’re looking for work, any information that you need, you can find on the internet. If you’re confused about something, you can check the internet,” said Gold.

“But who’s going to pay for that? Does the province pay for it, does the district pay for it?” he said.

“I know they say around town that they’re offering free internet, but it’s not reliable, and it’s not convenient to go to the library all the time,” said Tucker. “Let’s face it — everything these days happens online.”

This newspaper reached out on social media to ask local residents about their internet connections and received dozens of responses from across the Muskoka region.

Becky Lacroix is a single mother on the Ontario Disability Support Program who lives in Bala. She said in an email that she struggles to pay her internet bill and can’t find a way to reduce it.

“I get so frustrated because my internet bill is high, yet I look at ways to save, to shave the bill down, and there just doesn’t seem to be any options. My son is 16 and is always using the internet for school,” she said.

Although she was approved for a government subsidy program called Connecting Families, a $13.2-million investment over five years that offers low-income families with internet packages as low as $10 a month, it was too slow and didn’t have enough data for her family’s needs, so she kept the plan she had, she said.

People who are looking to move to the area but want to make sure they’ll have internet access can check a website called Connected North. The project has mapped northern Ontario communities and their internet coverage.

Susan Church, the executive director of the Blue Sky Economic Growth Corporation in North Bay, which supports the project, says it’s helped paint a better picture of the problem.

“It really helps ISPs (internet service providers) develop their business plans,” she said over the phone. “We also began to see it also as a tool for development in terms of property and economic development.”

The information on the website is about three years old, but Church says things haven’t changed much since then. She is hopeful there will be more opportunities for expansion with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission fund but says the government also needs to step forward.

“We really need the government’s help,” she said. “It’s so expensive and you can’t possibly begin to charge enough to cover the cost of building (towers) because the population is so sparse.”

Gravenhurst’s mayor Kelly echoes her thoughts.

“I think the federal government and provincial government need to say this is an accessibility issue from a whole lot of perspectives, and (they) need to step up to the plate,” he said.