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Pandemic lessons: Reliable internet is no longer a luxury—it’s a right

May 11, 2020

By Simon O'Byrne

We now have the tools and technology to treat internet like roads, bridges, and other critical pieces of infrastructure

As many of us are being asked to stay home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, reliable internet access has become less of a luxury and more of a lifeline. Those of us who can are working from home. School boards are asking our children learn from home. More than ever before we are ordering our food, doing our shopping, and connecting with our friends and family over the internet. 

This isn’t a new conversation, and we’ve been doing a lot to improve broadband access. But as public health officials ask us all to stay home to keep each other safe and we look to a future that might include a more “remote” lifestyle, it’s even more urgent that we address access gaps. We have the technology and the knowledge to make it happen.

Stantec worked with First Nations communities and the Government of Quebec to build out 800 km (500 miles) of fiber-optic cable infrastructure through Northern Quebec’s variable weather and challenging terrain. 

Significant service gaps

The digital divide is real. While new subdivisions and dense urban centers enjoy the option to subscribe to the best internet technology available, the online experience is not the same in rural and remote communities, many of which are still running their internet connections on old technology or phone lines. With limited customers spread out over larger distances, telecommunications companies have a hard time making the business case to invest in high-speed infrastructure. 

This is particularly notable in First Nations communities in remote locations across Canada, where even more basic infrastructure like roads, bridges, and access to clean water are sometimes a concern. 

In our cities, internet access varies wildly from house to house and neighborhood to neighborhood. More working-class neighborhoods in cities where infrastructure investment has lagged might not have the level of connectivity required to effectively work and learn at home. In fact, a study by Microsoft in 2018 estimated that about half of Americans—163 million people—do not have high-speed internet at home.

Internet access across socioeconomic classes is another major concern. As all schooling has shifted online, access to internet at home has become a must-have, not a nice-to-have. Families that relied on free internet at public libraries can no longer do so. Every family needs to have a laptop and connectivity if their kids are going to keep going to school. 

The Whatcom County rural broadband dark fiber project in Washington State will run 40.6 miles to meet the future needs of the county.

Bridging gaps through COVID-19

Some school boards are doing their best to supply what’s needed, but they’re playing catch-up in an emergency.

In Northeastern Ontario, school boards are surveying families to better understand their access to internet and hardware so they can help support every child’s education. Many of the school boards cover a wide area, and some have reported that as many as 200 students can’t access online learning.

The cost of getting internet to a rural house will keep many families from making that investment. For those who do, the speed available often just isn’t up to standard for joining an online video chat. It can be extremely frustrating for families and unintentionally creates two classes of students—those who can easily attend online classes and those who can’t.

Making broadband access a reality—particularly in remote locations—requires bringing interdisciplinary expertise to bear.

In Arizona, nearly 60% of homes in Maricopa County (which includes Phoenix) have high-speed internet capable of video conferencing, according to Microsoft. In rural Cochise County (which is near Tucson), only about 25% of homes have high-speed internet. Many jurisdictions around North America are finding solutions with public hot spots, where high-speed internet can be accessed from a parking lot. While not an ideal situation for many families, it does provide one option. 

In California, where schools are expected to stay closed until the end of the academic year, Google is stepping in to help. The company said it will provide free Wi-Fi to 100,000 rural California families through the end of the school year, plus 4,000 Chromebook laptops for students.

In Canada, telecommunications company Bell is planning to accelerate its wireless rollout of broadband services to reach an additional 137,000 rural homes by the end of April.

Private sector companies, nonprofits, and governments are pulling together to help make things work through the thick of the pandemic, but we can keep working to build long-term solutions.

For our team to connect the Matawa First Nations in Northern Ontario, we worked with 6 communities over 881 km, much of which are ice/winter roads, as well as engineering solutions across lakes, the widest of which was Attawapiskat Lake at 19 km.

Bringing broadband to everyone

We know where we need better connectivity—the Federal Government in Canada has mapped out gaps in broadband service. There are also good government programs in place to expand service, such as Connect to Innovate in Canada, which has already provided more than $600 million in subsidies to bring rural communities online. In the United States, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund targets up to $20.4 billion over 10 years for investment in high-speed broadband networks.

This is no small effort. Making broadband access a reality—particularly in remote locations—requires bringing interdisciplinary expertise to bear.

Here’s what it’s going to take to get connected:

  • Identify opportunities to expand broadband connection. This can come through familiarization with a funding opportunity, or by including internet with public works upgrades, like stormwater or sewers. Some smaller municipalities will only tear up their main street every 20 or 30 years—not exactly in tune with the speed of fiber technology advancement. Every time a road is being disturbed for utility work we should ask if there’s an opportunity to install or upgrade broadband lines. We should give it the same level of importance as other essential infrastructure.
  • Developing a business case and funding model. While there are government grants available for broadband expansion, creating a business model and plan falls on the shoulders of community leaders. Expert advisory services can help form a strategic plan and preliminary design that offers a viable path to completion. The more holistic the plan, the more impact it will have. Some jurisdictions have found ways to move forward with fiber backbone infrastructure, which is the basis for delivering reliable internet to an entire region.
  • Permitting and developing the plan. There are myriad entities that require permitting for laying new lines, including environmental authorities, local government authorities like municipalities and First Nations, transportation authorities, mining claims in the area, among others. This goes hand in hand with any archaeological work that needs to be done, community engagement, and early design to determine the optimal route placement.
  • Network design and engineering solutions. Design and engineering needs will vary significantly. A greenfield subdivision development is a relatively simple installation. Getting broadband to a remote northern community provides significantly greater challenges, such as lake crossings, permafrost, muskeg, a lack of electrical connection, or a lack of access roads. Trenching through an existing community can also be extremely disruptive. Using directional drilling guided by GPS—a method used in the oil and gas industry—can help minimize that disruption. No matter the challenge, it’s possible to bring creative and feasible solutions to bear to give people the internet access they need and deserve.

The post-pandemic world needs to look very closely at the role digital connection plays in our lives and how IT enables access to essential services and education. The next generations of technology—like 5G wireless networks—have the power to make our businesses and communities more efficient, but equitable internet access will become more important, not less important. Establishing reliable internet access as essential infrastructure is critical if we are to have a just and democratic society in the 21st century. 

The pressure is on to make it happen.

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