The digital divide

Although most Ontarians take for granted the ease with which we can do almost anything online, there are technological gaps with far-reaching consequences for remote communities in northern Ontario that still don’t have access to the internet. Implementing the infrastructure within the vast, rugged landscape of the north requires the ingenuity of engineers who are doing the planning.

Most Ontarians reading this likely only think about their internet connection when there’s a problem: when it’s slow or—even more panic inducing—it disappears altogether. For most, being disconnected is a temporary annoyance: maybe your battery died on the train or the hydro went out, or you forgot your phone at home. Most of us can use the internet to complete a seemingly endless array of tasks ranging from the mundane to the critical. We can check the status of medical tests, for example, or take a course or earn a degree without leaving home. We can converse with a friend or colleague on the other side of the world, pay a bill, borrow a book, go shopping, find the nearest coffee shop or check the weather forecast without thinking much about how we’re able to do any of that. The internet is ubiquitous, and using it is second nature. Often, when Ontarians in urban centres arrive at their destination, the first question is not “Where’s the washroom?” but “What’s the Wi-Fi password?”

The term “digital divide” has been used to describe social and economic inequalities that exist between those who have access to information and communication technologies, particularly broadband, and those who do not—and the impact of these technological gaps has far-reaching consequences for the communities that continue to go without.

The level of connectivity many of us take for granted is not the reality for every Ontarian, at least not yet. While northern Ontario has a landmass that represents most of the province, it only has a small fraction of its population, and both factors have complicated the expansion of broadband into the region. Like most remote rural communities, much of northern Ontario faces unique challenges when it comes to putting infrastructure in place, whether we’re talking about roads and highways, natural gas or telecommunications—and broadband is no different. In urban centres, where residents generally have a 100 per cent connectivity rate, it’s more about the level of service: that is, how fast can it be and how much bandwidth can one get. In the remotest parts of the province, it’s about access; in other words, has it been implemented. Period.

If you’re part of the percentage that does not have access to broadband, you’re at a disadvantage. If you’re cut off from the digital economy, the lack of access can be a hindrance to economic development and make businesses less competitive. How can a business be innovative or adopt modern technologies if its finger isn’t on the digital pulse of the world?

With Ring of Fire development opportunities at stake in the mineral-rich region and northern Ontario communities working hard to retain and attract new and growing businesses, access to broadband is critical. Connection is a two-way street: If the north is going to attract—and keep—new residents and business, they need to both see and be seen. And, in a world where being on the internet means being connected, the lack of broadband further isolates already physically-isolated communities. While some may argue the opposite is true, being online can play a role in contributing to quality of life in the form of social networking, connecting with friends and family, entertainment and simply feeling connected to the rest of the world. The ramifications for mental health are real, along with skills development and economic opportunity.

Tori-Lea White, P.Eng., a geographical access network manager who works for Bell Canada, and lives near Parry Sound, ON, is familiar with the service gaps that often come with the territory. “I live in Kearney, Ontario, which has a population of about 800,” White says. “Just as an example, natural gas is not available at all in Kearney. Even those who live in the urban centres of northern Ontario would experience gaps in certain types of services. Working at Bell, and living in a small town, I’m often asked when new services will be coming to the area or told about certain areas where telecommunications services could be expanded.”

For White, who works out of Huntsville, ON, getting broadband implemented in the region is a big part of her job. She’s responsible for the planning of fibre network infrastructure in a region that includes Simcoe County and the Muskoka and Parry Sound district, focusing on a three- to five-year strategic plan, and ensuring the fibre network is ready to handle any expansion of broadband services, both residential or commercial, throughout her territory: “I am responsible for ensuring we have sufficient capacity in our fibre network to meet the needs of future developments—new subdivisions, new businesses, etc.—as well as assisting with maintaining and enhancing our existing networks, both copper and fibre,” White says. “I also work with Bell Mobility to plan new tower and cell site locations, including remote cell sites that are not linked by fibre today. I work very closely with our implementation teams who do the more detailed design work and build the networks.”

The work is not without its challenges. Northern Ontario is home to an incredibly diverse, rugged landscape, and when it comes to running cable through numerous bodies of water and large expanses of solid rock, the geography itself is a hindrance. There can also be a lack of incentive for internet service providers to put broadband infrastructure in place in remote areas due to the prohibitive costs associated with battling rough terrain to serve a disperse populace. When considering these factors, federal and provincial funding programs become especially critical.

“There are always significant challenges in deploying new network infrastructure in vast rural areas of the country from both investment and construction perspectives, and certainly into northern Ontario specifically,” White explains. And when it comes to tackling the landscape, the ingenuity of engineers doing the planning is critical. “There are different degrees of remoteness that are fairly unique to northern Ontario,” she continues. “Even though we’re all on the Canadian shield, the geography across the region changes quite drastically. Here in Muskoka/Parry Sound, where there is a lot of water, we tend to place more submarine cable than in other parts of the province. And when we do come out of the water, there is a lot of rock, so we tend to place a lot of aerial cables on pole lines rather than bury the cables like we do in urban centres and less rocky parts of northern Ontario. In areas further north, we have very remote communities—places you can’t drive to—where they use ice roads in the winter and supplies are flown in or brought in by train. Trying to build a fibre network to reach places like this is particularly challenging, and Bell and other companies have employed innovative construction techniques and types of machinery to bring fibre and broadband services to these communities.”

White explains how, in urban areas, utilities tend to be buried within the city’s road allowance, either in a concrete-encased duct structure with manholes, pulled through an incidental duct, or buried directly in the ground. In rocky terrain, cables are more often strung on pole lines. “Much of Bell’s facilities in northern Ontario are on aerial structures, either sharing poles with the local hydro utility or alone on Bell-owned structures,” White says. The terrain further dictates how those poles are installed, depending on the size required and how accessible the location is to machinery.

Placing cables in water may seem like a much simpler operation but there are other factors to consider, like determining if the water is on public or private property and obtaining any necessary easements. Boat traffic and weather must also be considered. “Propellers can damage cables, so it’s important to stay away from boat launches, docks and marinas,” White explains. “Ice can also damage cable, so extra protection is needed at the shoreline, especially if the cable enters the water on bald rock.” Bell must also adhere to the instructions of the ministries and governmental groups from which they need permission before they can place cables in any body of water. “We receive a window of time when we’re allowed to place cable based on fish spawning seasons—usually July to September in this area,” she continues. “We must take care not to damage any spawning grounds or disturb fish habitat. Assessments are sometimes required by biologists who will provide other requirements. Submarine cable isn’t always the optimal solution, but when this type of installation is required, you have to ensure you are protecting the environment, minimizing the effect the construction will have on the ecosystem and building a network that will be maintainable for years to come.”

These and other factors make implementing broadband in northern Ontario not only challenging, but quite different from what one would see in more urban installations. In areas too remote for physical cable, other technologies must be used to bridge the gap. “Many of these remote communities are serviced by radio technology,” White says. “Although there are copper cables throughout the community itself, the link back to other communities is by radio or microwave transmission. There is no existing pole line to follow when bringing fibre to these communities—just a large expanse of beautiful wilderness to try to plan and build a fibre network through.” And, once service has been established, quality and reliability can be an issue. “There are challenges presented by the technology itself,” White says. “All telecommunications services are distance-limited to some extent. Copper line transmission degrades over distance, and although fibre cables can certainly go much farther, they too have distance limitations, as do wireless options. We always try to find the best technology to optimize network infrastructure in a particular area.”

Strides are being made with broadband implementation in northern Ontario due to numerous government-funded initiatives, private sector efforts and the technical know-how of internet service providers on the ground—key partners working together to bridge the divide. And it’s a long game: “These are huge undertakings that take years to build,” White points out.

All levels of government agree broadband is an essential service that should be available to all Ontarians no matter where they live. Connect to Innovate is a federal program that aims to promote innovation and enable Canadians in every region of the country to participate fully in the digital economy by providing remote and underserved communities with internet access. With plans to invest $500 million by 2021 to bring high-speed internet to 300 rural and remote communities in Canada, the plan—which was introduced as part of the 2016 budget—recognizes the challenges these communities face with respect to geography and population and how this presents barriers to private sector investment. The program focuses on building the digital backbone of high-speed internet networks—the main arteries carrying the enormous volumes of data essential for schools, hospitals, libraries and businesses to function in a global digital world.

The provincial government is also onboard. In a statement to Engineering Dimensions, Minister of Infrastructure and Communities Françoise-Philippe Champagne says: “I recognize that broadband connectivity supports jobs and economic growth in Ontario’s communities. I also understand the challenges in rural and remote communities when it comes to getting connected. We are looking at Ontario’s current broadband landscape to identify gaps and will work with municipalities and the private sector to support the expansion of broadband infrastructure to our rural and remote communities.” Champagne points out that the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund (NOHFC) includes cellular/broadband expansion as an eligible category within its Strategic Economic Infrastructure Program. Under that program, NOHFC has been able to extend basic broadband to 97 per cent of northern Ontario. The most recent NOHFC investment is anticipated to connect 40,000 more homes with high-capacity broadband. It is estimated that 93 per cent of homes will be connected to high-capacity broadband once existing projects are completed. Additionally, the NOHFC has helped to connect 26 First Nations communities in the far north through approximately 2000 kilometres of high-speed fibre-optic cable.

In recognition of its importance, in 2016, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) declared broadband internet access and mobile wireless service are basic telecommunications services that should be available to all Canadians. Further to that declaration, in September, the CRTC announced a $750-million fund aimed at improving broadband internet access services in underserved areas such as parts of northern Ontario. In its first five years, the Broadband Fund will support projects to build or upgrade infrastructure to provide fixed and mobile wireless broadband internet service to underserved Canadians. It is designed to complement existing and future private investments and public funding and aims to close the gap in connectivity between rural and urban areas. The CRTC set a target that Canadians should have access to speeds of at least 50 mega bits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 10 Mbps for uploads, as well as access to mobile wireless services, including when traveling on major transportation roads—because it’s only fair that all Ontarians be able to grumble about bandwidth speed.