The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored for many of us how deeply technology affects our lives. Confined largely to our homes since early spring, we’ve adapted to doing almost everything online — shopping, work, learning, and even health care. But perhaps nowhere is the effect felt more than in rural Canada, where residents often struggle to connect without reliable broadband.
It’s startling to think about, given that in 2016 the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) declared broadband internet — a connection with speeds of more than 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps) — an “essential service for all Canadians.” For those in urban areas, where approximately 99.9 per cent of residents have access to download speeds of 100 Mbps or more, it’s part of daily life. In rural communities, that number drops to just 37% — people are struggling to manage with dial-up connections or, in some cases, no internet connection at all.
The demand for broadband data is not set to slow down anytime soon. Pandemic aside, demand for broadband has been steadily increasing in Canada for years. From 2013 to 2017, the number of high-speed Internet subscriptions increased by 1.5 per cent, while the population only increased by 0.1 per cent.
“Broadband is not like other commodities — the more you produce, the more demand there is,” says Phil Roberts, CEO of Valo Networks. From a demand perspective, the pandemic has forced companies, people and institutions (especially education and health) to move on-line. It’s hard to find a business now that has not digitized — traditional brick and mortar businesses like gyms have found an online audience. Even after the pandemic, many will continue to use the technology to bring efficiencies and/or open new markets.
This is the acceleration of a trend that has already been in motion for some time, and one that Phil does not see changing post-pandemic. For rural communities especially, these trends in usage could be key to attracting new residents. Roberts likes to think of the trends in terms of three stages of adulthood.
Young adults, just starting out: “Internet is a necessity,” says Phil. “It’s how all their content is delivered.” This age group has the lowest penetration rate for landlines, and the highest for cord cutting. They need connectivity for entertainment, education, social activity, job-searches and even employment. This group might choose where they live based on budget (lower rents, proximity to school or work) but connection speeds will affect how long they stay.
Adults in careers to retirement: The older part of this segment may still rely on cable television and landlines, but this group’s use of technology like VOiP, IPTV and streaming is rapidly growing. Remote work requires a good internet connection, and this group is more likely to consider areas with good internet service, then choose their home within those zones. This is even true of urban areas, says Roberts — for example, some neighborhoods in Calgary are equipped with fibre-optic, while others are not.
Retired adults: Although they’ll tolerate slow connection speeds (especially if they’re on a fixed income), this group’s use of digital services for entertainment is growing. Emerging services like telehealth will continue this trend — Roberts estimate that in as little as three years, telehealth could become an essential part of healthcare delivery. As Canada’s senior population grows, people want to stay in their homes longer, necessitating the ability to connect with families, health care professionals, and others remotely. For those working and learning, the internet has become an essential way to connect from home — sometimes across town, sometimes across the country
The Future of Communities
Communities know it’s essential to close the digital divide — the pandemic has illustrated that in so many ways. The delivery of health care services, for example, has already emerged as essential for some communities. For example, some communities have already faced issues with their only doctor having to self-isolate, leaving residents without care during the pandemic. On a smaller level, access to high-speed broadbad allows landlords to use technology such as sensors, data, and algorithms to better manage their assets and reduce operational costs. And having the ability to connect smartphones with building systems may help increase safety for residents, guests, or the broader community.
Valo Networks is working to bring rural communities the same level of connectivity urban centres enjoy. We partner with communities to build local infrastructure, ensuring residents have access to the digital services that are becoming essential to all our lives. And it’s clear that investing in those communities will not only benefit current residents, but attract future ones, too.
Learn more about Valo Networks, and how we’re bringing high-speed connectivity to rural communities.