Weeden’s tiny hamlet of Ariss may be a rural community, but it’s only about 10 kilometres from the University of Guelph and about 22 kilometres from the University of Waterloo—in Canada’s technology centre. Despite this, its residents still struggle to access the internet at a time when the traditional news media—and new journalism ventures—are finding their audiences online.
“My internet service at home, sometimes it goes one, maybe half a megabyte down. I can’t grade, I can’t do anything, there’s no point, I might as well give up until about midnight,” says Weeden, a University of Guelph PhD candidate, whose experience made its way into her thesis inspiring an investigation into ways that rural Canada can keep up in the digital economy. Weeden is currently in her second year in the Rural Studies program in the school of Environmental Design and Rural Development.
“When we talk about gaps or lack of connectivity, whose standards are we using?,” Weeden asks. “I think you associate the lack of service with very remote areas that are very rural, but I live within 20 minutes of University of Waterloo, Laurier and University of Guelph on either side, and I can’t get service that is actually workable.”
Weeden says that she also has a satellite, because if she solely relied on internet then she would never be able to participate in society.
“If I have .05 mg service, nothing loads,” Weeden says, using Twitter as an example. “If we relied on the internet to be able to watch television or watch the news or any of that good stuff, we wouldn’t ever watch it … the reliability is a big part of the problem.”
The issue of internet access in southwestern Ontario has been a topic of concern for a while. During the September 2018 municipal elections, anger and frustration over internet access was reflected across every candidate platform, with internet speeds as a top priority. But many people couldn’t even participate fully in the election because they couldn’t get online to view candidate platforms.
“Where are people going to get information about their candidates?” Brian Masschaele asks. Masschaele works as Director of Community and Cultural Services at the Elgin County library. He says that because of a lack of media outlets, and poor quality information online, residents are not getting as informed as they would like to be about who is running. “It is an example where there’s a lot of information that people are not getting, and they are not able to fully participate in the process.”
In pockets across Elgin county people have limited cellular or wireless service, he says. This is because homes are not close enough to telecommunications towers. Many rural residents also only have access to some forms of satellite service, which is typically too expensive to subscribe to, or they are still on dial up or DSL.
“We have some communities that had fibre optics installed in the last year to two years. That roll out is going very slowly and very targeted to certain communities,” Masschaele says.
While traditional forms of print journalism have been declining rapidly, Masschaele says very few new media publications are emerging. The result? With poor connectivity and limited news service, residents are not getting access to enough local news.
A startup in the community has emerged as a crisis response. After several newspapers shuttered two to three years ago, Melissa Schneider decided she would find a way to fill the gap.
She founded The Echo, a free biweekly print publication in June 2018. The first issue was distributed to approximately 2,500 households within central Elgin. Today, about 4000 issues are distributed in the area.
“We do free distribution to people in central Elgin and Southwold in the hopes of just being able to get local news in the hands of people that are interested in it,” Schneider says.
Schneider was affected by the mass layoffs related to the Metroland and Postmedia swap on Nov. 27, 2017. It was then that she realized the need for a local print publication.
“Because we are such a rural community, not just Elgin County, but all of our municipalities are fairly rural, there are still people who do not have access to the internet,” Schneider says.
Since hydro goes out fairly frequently, Schneider says there is a running joke that when that happens at least people can sit with a flashlight or candle and read their copy of The Echo.
The fact that rural southwestern Ontario has an internet problem is not news. In fact, a government campaign called SouthWestern Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT) was put in place last year to combat the lack of fibre optic networks in those areas.
CIRA found that 100 percent of Canadians in urban areas have the potential to access high speed internet, whereas only 85 percent have that potential in rural areas. Meaning about one million people in rural communities don’t have high speed broadband access.
Helen Hambly Odame, associate professor in capacity development and rural studies at Guelph University, says southwestern Ontario makes up approximately 10 percent of Canada’s population, but 230,000 premises in that area does not meet the standard connectivity of 50:10.
“Many folks in urban areas in Toronto are getting one thing: unlimited plans. This is a dream for most of us who live in southwestern Ontario.” Most service providers are all about business so they typically, to some extent, only cover wealthier neighbourhoods where they could sell packages, says Hambley Odame. She estimates that about 40 percent of the towers in rural southwestern Ontario aren’t fibre-connected.
“You need to make sure that places where people go to get information and news are really functioning at the best possible connectivity because these are important places,” Hambley Odame says, adding that expensive subscription costs are not sufficient.
The story of parents driving their children to the nearest Tim Hortons to do their homework is a common one. “[Some] kids are growing up without having the access to the internet in some areas of the country and the parents are in this horrible position of also saying we’re on a limited plan,” says Hambley Odame, adding that unlimited data plans offered in urban centres are seldom offered in rural areas. It then comes down to what information you’re going to prioritize, which will usually be information essential to the household. “Watching the news, even on your device, that’s just not going to be a priority,” she says.