The Canadian Digital Divide: The Experience Just North of Toronto

Soon after the publication of my column on the digital divide in Canada, I received the following email from a reader, who lives just north of Toronto (FWIW, I’ve received similar letters from people within the City of Ottawa limits). The reader reacts to both the lack of access and the efforts of Xplornet to stop the government from supporting communities without access. The letter ends with an important question: will the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology take the time to hear directly from Canadians without access?  The full letter is posted below with permission.

My family lives in a rural subdivision north of Stouffville and east of Newmarket, ON.  We do not have access to broadband internet service except through the expensive satellite service to which you alluded in your article.  I have lobbied my representatives at all three government levels in hopes that they might be able to help provide service here……..all to no avail.  At least my federal MP promised that the government was on the “cusp” of providing high speed internet service to our area.  I emailed back for a clarification of the term “cusp” and so far have not received a reply.  That was three years ago.

Xplornet Communications has been extremely aggressive in their marketing to sell high speed service in our area with flyers in the mail as well as door-to-door literature drop-offs.  However, due to topography and trees in our area, we are unable to “see” any of their towers, so even their service in unavailable to us.  It seems ironic to hear of their admonishment to the Standing Committee against the government’s support to help areas like ours achieve what most Canadians take for granted, i.e., access to high speed internet.

Thank you for your article.  It has created a buzz amongst my neighbours.  We all thought we had just slipped through the cracks.  As a point of interest, I wonder if this Standing Committee actually includes anyone who does not have access to broadband?


  1. When I see that in 2007-2008, 30km north of Ottawa, Rogers cell service was inexistant, and that most of the Transcanada in Ontario has no service either, nothing surprises me. Telcos claim that it is expensive to provide service in Canada because Canada is a big country, but these lightly populated areas aren’t serviced anyway.

  2. This would be a good opportunity for white-band WiFi technology to be implemented. How about our governments step up and be pioneers in supporting something other than oil pipelines.

  3. Ray Saintonge says:

    On the “cusp”
    Our current government and its MPs have shown a remarkable agility for cusp-surfing.

  4. Sandy Harris says:

    One outfit that seems to have found a viable business model in this area is Ottawa-based Storm Internet.

    In the city, they offer residential ADSL and a faster dish-on-the roof wireless service mainly for small business. Out in the country, they claim to cover 8,000 sq km South & West of the city with wireless service.

  5. Many of the subdivisions north of Stouffville, east of Newmarket are golf course estates. I can just imagine the uproar if government money was earmarked to subsidize broadband access for 3000 square foot homes on acre lots on a golf course.

    There is almost another side to the story. The writer isn’t saying there isn’t broadband; he just wants the rest of Canada to subsidize the price for him.

  6. I live north of Newmarket. If you are able to get Rogers cable TV, you should be able to get broadband as well. Start Communications offers service to any with an existing cable tv sub with Rogers.

  7. Even areas that have some access to broadband access have limitations. My subdivision in the Barrhaven area of south Ottawa was built in the early 1990s. This is a medium-high density modern suburban neighbourhood. Phone-based internet is limited to ancient ADSL2+ technology with connections limited to the captive office about 4km away – there are no remotes in this area. This severely limits attainable speeds to well, 1990s capabilities. Even the cable infrastructure here has been left to deteriorate, with huge issues of node oversubscription and nasty slowdowns as everyone watches YouTube and Netflix.

  8. Ray Saintonge says:

    Richmond, BC, where I live, is probably well covered with ADSL, but we are still sometimes subject to down times. Shaw will never publicly admit when this is caused by node oversubscription, preferring instead to look for causes in the subscribers own equipment.

  9. I have had some trouble getting internet access where I’m at. However, I was able to get internet access just by purchasing a small booster to put on my house. They are available from bell here:

  10. Daniel O'Leary says:

    lost in translation
    The issue that Anaon brought up is not really factual. I Live in west Ottawa, and the big Telco’s bypassed us to provide wired broadband to a new estate community further out then us. This is just wrong. The reason of cost is misleading.

    They could easily provide LTE broadband to these areas by using various towers that already exist, and making the cost competitive with wired broadband. Now some would say that can be abused, by people using a rural address to get the discount, but that is incorrect. They know what tower each device connects to. All they need to do, is state on the plan, that if you use your LTE device in an area with wired broadband, then different rates apply. Once wire is brought to these areas, allow the users to switch to wired at no cost.

    The reason that this will never happen, is that the incumbents make a fortune off of those of us with LTE/DC-HSPA+ as our only choice.

    With explornet, they oversubscribe. I was using them, and it was worse than dialup. I lived within 300 meters of the tower, direct line of sight.

  11. Xplornet Hijinks
    I live in rural Milton. I paid $2,000 to build a tower for xplornet wireless services. The government gave them $400,000 to provide services to us. In October 2012, I got a notice that they were offering my 4G service. It turned out it was crappy satellite service at 3x the cost and about 1/5th the speed. In any event, they pulled the plug on the wireless service in November, about 3 years after they started it. Now I pay $300/month for 3 Rogers wireless hubs. That is Canada.

    As I like to tell people, I have visited rural villages in Turkey were every tiny house has wired highspeed. They don’t have the CRTC and Industry Canada.

  12. The “Shaw and Telus hatte each other sooo bad!”
    Has really helped broadband in BC. I now live in the sticks where it’s a 20-minute drive to get a jug of milk, yet we have better cable broadband data rates than when I lived downtown Abbotsford, BC!

  13. @Gregg

    So what you are saying is: If we had genuine competition in the rest of Canada it could prove beneficial? Interesting hypothesis 🙂

  14. Open Access Fiber Backbone
    Australia is large like Canada and many rural places aren’t financially viable for corporations to build expensive infrastructure and expect a healthy profit in return, the Australian government solution is to build a $43 billion (Australian) fiber optic network to 90% of all homes. After its completion it will be open-access meaning it will not be owned by one specific corporation. I think this is the only type of logical solution for Canada also!

  15. @ Alex
    There’s less competition in the west than the east. We just don’t have a collusion problem. Our two (yes, we only have two) broadband providers genuinely hate each other and will get some hermit on a mountain Netflix at a loss than see the other guy get him.

  16. Stop wasting time/money on “wired” access when wireless is the answer
    Africa has no money (compared to us), so they don’t have the fortune of lobbying for millions in government subsidies. Yet they have some of the highest levels of wireless penetration. Why? Because its (relatively) CHEAP! They have similar geography of vast low-density populations like Canada. Throw up a bunch of 4G/HSDPA/LTE/whatever towers and be done with this argument.

  17. @Derek
    Total agreement… lets mimic success of the third world shall we, we can all become goat herders or big game wardens.

    Sometimes Canadian rugged individualism and free market evangelism gets a little tedious. We are discussing solutions to the real problem of the digital divide between urban and rural Canada.

  18. Daniel O'Leary says:

    Wireless broadband is not broadband
    Yes, LTE is fast, but to me, broadband is speed and volume. LTE is only speed. When I asked why they don’t offer more volume the big three always state that the high cost for usage is because of the high cost to deliver the service. If you look into it, using a mesh topology to set up the towers is cheaper than laying lines, and maintaining them. But RBT all say its the opposite.

    Here is something else. I checked the Bell LTE coverage maps for west Ottawa by using a laptop and the turbo stick, and in actuality, the LTE coverage is much smaller. I asked Bell to update their maps, but they refuse. At the same time, they use these maps to show they have the largest LTE network.

    This all comes down to $$$$, the big three will never bring fair pricing to the market, until people complain, but Canadians in general will not do so. In some cases, they don’t know better, like my neighbor, who uses explornet. He was happy with his speed, until I showed him he was paying for high speed, but getting only slightly higher than dialup. He was only using it for basic purposes, but he was still being ripped off all the same.

    My idea is that they all offer LTE and DC-HSPA+ at DSL and Cable prices for those of us without wired access. They can check for abuse by validating which tower the device is connecting to. Once wired access is available by any provider, then allow them to switch with no penalty.

    Bell said they can’t do that, because it would overload the cellular network. I asked them how they could say that, when all of us, but for a few, use LTE for our service in our area now. Its all we have, and none of us has ever had performance issues.

    I would vote with my wallet, but their is nothing else.

  19. Actually Alex…
    Derek’s point has been echoed by several in the industry.

    It’s not that our networks can’t do it, it’s that the providers *won’t* do it. Why do any more than the minimum if you don’t have to?

  20. Second Class Citizens
    Because it is called a *devide* if somebody in the countryside must pay $300 a month to do something mundane like watch netflix, when somebody in an inner city can do the same thing for $50, then its divisive. Rural Canada are quickly becoming second class citizens that can’t afford basic modern conveniences.

    I personally don’t think we should be content with African (third world conditions) for rural Canada.

    Alright maybe wireless is the solution but if you can only receive service from one provider it doesn’t stimulate competition. If public taxpayer dollars are used to build new infrastructure then resulting towers should be open-access and not owned exclusively by one specific provider?

  21. @Alex

    There are always tradeoffs between living downtown or in a rural area. The guy downtown might get cheaper internet but then he pays an extra $350 a month to park his car. The guy downtown can get an ambulance at his door in 3-5 minutes but the guy in the country might wait 30 minutes or more. in addition to digital divide there is also an economic divide and a health/safety divide.

  22. @Donna
    I pay for roads in Ontario that I will never drive on, if I had to pay to build every road I drove on: I couldn’t afford to drive anywhere!

    We live in a country that shoulders the large economic burdens collectively and it makes our lives considerably better.

    You say the divide includes other areas not exclusively technological, having affordable dependable internet access in rural Canada could reduce the economic divide also.

  23. @Alex

    I couldn’t agree more. The challenge is how to get the public and the government to agree on what services are the highest priority for government funding. Some will say health care and education are bigger priorities and some will say internet. I really don’t know if the average Canadian would support $43 billion of their tax dollars going to fund a nationwide broadband program (a la Australia) while our health care systems are crumbling across the country.

  24. I’m very aware it will never have public approval.

    My objective was to point out that other similar first world countries are having identical problems and how they are choosing to solve them.

  25. That title is misleading…
    My family lives in a community that is 600 km North of Toronto (pop. ca. 10,000) and they’ve had wired broadband access for some time through local cable provider EastLink…at better prices than are offered by Rogers or Bell in most major Southern Ontario cities. However there certainly is a rural divide, as moving farther out into the countryside (no matter how far you are from Toronto) has always been an issue for telecommunications services, whether it be telephone, cable television, internet access or wireless. Does this not just have to do with the cost/benefit of building the infrastructure to provide services to rural homes. I’m not sure what the author expects the government to do here, if they want better services overall, they should move to a location that’s capable of providing those.

  26. Just South of Collingwood
    My family lives in a small village just 5 km South of Collingwood, Ontario. We only have access to the Internet through the Rogers High-Speed stick. I find it ironic that in rural areas in Argentina I was able to connect to high speed Internet at a very cheap rate, but here in my hometown, I cannot even get affordable access.

    I am even more concerned of the fact that, the citizens in this area, do not have access to the Internet and rely on major tv networks and newspapers for their “news.”

  27. rural fiber does make sense in southern Ontario
    I am almost surrounded by a local co-op( that has built out ftth, I use a Wimax extension (+- 5km away) of “their” network. The only reason they are not expanding is because they have been around for 80+/- years and like Bell, they seem to own the rights to certain areas, except Bell’s area is way bigger. We have to get to the root of the problem: who and how many people/companies actually control our infrastructure?

  28. Rural in New Brunswick is no better
    I’m 6 clicks outside of Perth-Andover and use the Xplornet Wireless Highspeed 5 down and 1 up. I’ve got that once. It’s mostly drop outs, can’t watch anything low quality on youtube without buffering out and the average speed is .6 up and 1.3 down on a clear day. I pay $80 a month for this. I can get a stick but with Windows Updates I’d have that used up in two weeks. Bell won’t continue with DSL in the area and concentrate Fibre in large centres. Rural, which is most of the province’s population is pretty much stuck.

  29. There’s a CRTC complaints procedure, Robert.
    I’d use it and demand a good deal of your money back.

    When I was on ADSL and relized I’d been getting hosed on BW for months, I raised a stink and didn’t even have to go to the CRTC… I ended up with 6 months of free service!

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  31. Rogers Internet $743.86 per month for 80 GB
    This is my experience just north of Toronto:

    > ———- Forwarded message ———-
    > From: Rogers Order Confirmation
    > Date: Thu, Feb 2, 2012 at 10:58 AM
    > Subject: Re: Rogers Internet General Inquiry (KMM81929578I22L0KM)
    > To: xxxxx
    > Dear xxxxx xxxxx,
    > Thank you for your reply.
    > We can advise that if you used 80GB per month you would be billed $93.86 for the 15GB included in our Flex Plan plus $10 per additional GB which in this case would be 65 additional GBs. Since each additional GB is billed at $10 that would be an additional $650 for a total of $743.86 plus tax. If you have any further questions or requests please let us know.
    > We hope this information will assist you.
    > For future email correspondence with respect to this e-mail, please quote reference number 48497065
    > Regards,
    > Matt M. Rogers Online Customer Service
    > Original Message Follows: ————————
    > Hello Sheryl R.
    > Why are you unable to provide an exact amount for the 80GB of usage with the Rocket Hub?
    > xxxxx

    In the end, I decided to go with XplorNet for $84.99/month. My bill now is $96/month for 100 GB.

  32. I don’t really understand why people think they have some sort of right to high speed internet.
    So Internet is difficult and expensive north of Toronto.. Obviously, some places are harder and more expensive to get internet to.. I don’t see the problem. Do we owe them charity for cheaper high speed internet access because they live in the boonies? There are people living in some places that are hard to build roads to, get power to, etc, etc.. You wanna live in those places those issues are part of the deal. Whats so special about internet?

  33. @crade
    Canada is a nation that includes rural areas.

    I’ve been hearing this let them eat cake garbage for weeks: “Oh you can’t afford internet…why don’t you just buy half million dollar house in an inner city so that you can get basic services.”

    The government is to blame they have antiquated protectionist laws designed to protect indigenous telecommunication monopolies from foreign competition.

    The government can either scrap protectionism or build the adequate infrastructure so that rural Canada can enjoy the basic 21st century conveniences.

  34. I live just 50kms from the Parliament buildings in rural west Quebec. After >10 years of empty promises by Bell that high-speed Internet would be “coming soon”, and various costly attempts to get better-than-dialup from Explornet I am now into my 3rd year of reliable high speed access. A small local wireless provider and I built a tower on my property to bring his signal to our house and several local rural neighbours. Total outlay was ~$2K; not much more than the satellite dish that kept needing expensive parts.

    People in large urban centers seem to fall for the myth that rural coverage is too expensive for the incumbent players, and are apparently blind to how poorly they are being served by said players compared to other countries. Residents of many smaller towns outside of main urban centers are now customers of incumbent providers (the big 3 telcos) via local towers (owned by incumbents), local cable, or DSL. Canadian telcos have been very successful with “low hanging fruit” strategy: get all the easy customers first — and lock them in with long contracts. Moreover, they seem to have been remarkably able to keep their customers pacified by regular messages about their supposed great service. Of course, with no other options, how many people even know that much better alternatives exist?

    The reality is that good and affordable service can be provided by LOCAL entrepreneurs reselling bandwidth from the main carriers. However, unless existing rules about tower sharing and bulk bandwidth reselling are enforced, it can be a tough business.

    We’d all be better off — rural AND urban — if our government would be less protectionist, support infrastructure development (like in Australia), and encourage smaller players in this critical market segment.

  35. @Alex thats exactly what I was saying.. Canada includes rural areas.. It includes areas where fruit costs a fortune because it has to be flown in by helicopter, it includes areas that are difficult to access, it’s big, it includes areas where internet is more expensive to put in and less profitable for companies. I’m just not sure why that surprises anyone. It’s got nothing to do with foreign companies, thats a load of crap. Foreign companies want to make profit too, they aren’t going to lose money serving remote areas with only a few customers for cheap any more than local companies are.

    You don’t have to move to any inner city if you don’t want to. Inner city has it’s own expenses just like rural areas have their own.

  36. @Eric – I deffinately agree with you if you leave aside the issue of possibly living at the north pole that internet services in Canada are poor in general for everyone and need to be improved in general,
    but what makes you say that it’s a myth that providing internet coverage in remote / sparsely populated areas is more expensive? Just seems like common sense to me that it would be both logistically more difficult as well as bring less customers for the investment. Whether you are a local entrepeneur or not, the less customers you have to cover your investment with the more you have to charge to break even

  37. @crade
    Clearly you haven’t heard the term “let them eat cake”

  38. @crade
    Just be a brain damaged acceptor of the digital divide then, you understand why it is occurring. You also understand that it can’t be solved by simple free market competition.

  39. @Alex, no need to be insulting, it was an honest question. I’m not against our general taxes paying for ammeneties and things to be brought to remote areas, I’m just trying to understand how faster internet to remote areas is a priority item to spend those funds on when compared against all the other things remote areas struggle with.

    I grew up in an area where it was difficult to get internet, the town had “broadband” (or what passed for it back in the 90s) and we, being out of town had dialup, and eventually paid out the nose for satelite.. But the town also wouldn’t run water to us, so we had to have a well, nor would they run cable for TV or pick up our garbage for us, we had to pay more for power, or a whole bunch of other things either and I know other more remote places have even less of those comforts. It also takes longer to commute into town to buy groceries and such but on the other hand, we didn’t have to live in the crowded town, we had access to a great lake and all the perks of having a forest as your back yard.. I never really thought it was an unfair trade that we had slower internet and I’m pretty water that didn’t taste like ass would have been higher on my priority list.

  40. Daniel O'Leary says:

    I live well inside the boundaries of Ottawa, only 20 some km from the core. we have no broadband except LTE. If you look into it, you will find that 99% of rural dwellings are well within the serviceable range of Bell and Rogers, but they don’t bother. The reason comes down to no competition and maximum shareholder profit. You see, if they provided wired broadband, I would have no need for their more costly services like Satellite TV or $1000/month LTE service. based on just the profits they make from the 150 homes in my are in one year, they could provide wired broadband. They just don’t want to give up what they gouge us for.

    Now look at LTE. The cost of setting up a tower, putting a point to point back-haul connection to other towers, to service these areas, is cheap compared to wiring one apartment building. Then they turn around, and only offer 15 or 20 GB per month, with $10/GB overage charges. When asked, they say its because of the cost of offering the service. This is the fallacy. Do some research, and you will find that they could easily offer much more than 10/15 GB a month in rural areas, and it costs them nothing more. not a cent more. and they can tell if your device is on rural towers. So they can offer these better plans if the wanted to with no abuse. They will never do that, as long as they have no competition.

    So they don’t have to spend more tax dollars to make them conform, all they need to do, is open up to more competition, and stop Bell, Telus and Rogers from buying up the competition.

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