At this point in our history, not having high speed internet can feel like living in the dark ages. Just ask people in Rosswood.
The small community 37 km north of Terrace relies on a sluggish satellite connection to provide it with the internet service that is available at much faster speeds to almost all of the 99 percent of Canadians who have the internet, according to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).
Rosswood residents – like people in Gossen, Kleanza, and Usk – are part of four percent of the population that do not have access to high speed internet and they recently appealed to local companies and politicians to change that.
This is a familiar struggle for most of Terrace’s outlying areas which have had problems getting connected to the online world because, for service providers such as Telus and CityWest, the cost to extend their lines to more remote areas is too high.
However, New Remo just west of Terrace did get CityWest service recently and was able to leave the expensive and unreliable satellite internet behind.
This prompted John Rinaldi of the Rosswood Community Association to circulate a petition that he sent to CityWest earlier this month asking for the company to bring high speed internet to Rosswood.
“I took a poll and sent it to CityWest to ask them to come out here,” Rinaldi explained of the 51 signatures he collected from the community.
He says that at least 30 more people “have gone online” since then and would most likely be willing to add their names to the list which went to CityWest salesman Donovan Dias and MP Nathan Cullen.
“You know, the government said that all communities would have high speed internet, but they didn’t say how good of high speed internet,” he criticized.
Contrary to what is advertised by satellite internet companies, the federal government and the CRTC consider internet over five megabits per second download speed (Mbps) to be high speed internet and satellite providers in the northwest region currently do not meet that threshold.
Rinaldi explained that he regularly experiences slowdowns with his satellite internet and that often impedes his ability to do simple tasks online.
“The speed you get really varies depending on the time of day,” Rinaldi said, figuring that this is a result of how many customers are using the internet at certain times.
“And because it is a satellite, the weather slows it down to a crawl,” he remarked.
Upon closer inspection, it is clear that even when satellite internet is performing at its best, it is hardly comparable to other internet providers.
Rinaldi’s internet provider Galaxy charges $149.99 per month for download speeds that reach up to three megabits per second (Mbps) with a daily maximum download capacity of 600 megabytes (MB).
To put this in perspective, the CRTC says that the average YouTube 1080p video takes 3.9 Mbps download capacity to stream, nearly one megabit faster than the speeds currently available to Terrace’s outlying areas.
Compare this to the regional internet provider CityWest whose smallest plan gets users up to 10Mbps for $49.95, and the speeds only increase from there.
Rinaldi says that the satellite internet really isn’t great, but it is the only option for people who have built their life in the area surrounding Terrace.
Outlying areas that are rural or remote often don’t enjoy the same services that municipalities do, so advocating for their rights to basic services isn’t something new to Rosswood residents, said Rinaldi.
In 1999 the community of 150 people received electricity from BC Hydro with the help of the then-MP Mike Scott.
They didn’t receive landline telephone service until 2001.
Rinaldi hopes that a similar momentum could help bring internet to Rosswood.
In 2011, the CRTC determined that all Canadians would have access to high speed internet by the end of 2015.
With that date nearing, the 5Mbps standard for internet is something that no satellite internet company in this area meets, but cable internet companies surpassed long ago.
Because many Canadians are still not connected to this basic standard of internet, the CRTC has undertaken a year-long review of basic internet services in Canada through which it plans to determine if internet is a necessity, what speeds are necessary to participate fully in the digital economy, and what the government can do to ensure that these needs are met.
The CRTC just wrapped up the call for comments on July 24 and has scheduled a public hearing on the issue which will take place in Quebec next April.
There are two satellite internet companies that provide service to the outlying areas around Terrace: Galaxy Broadband and Xplornet.
And although both companies are able to provide high speed to other areas of Canada, that option is not available in the Terrace area.
“Xplornet says they have [high speed], but I think they forgot to mention that it is really only [high speed] if you are east of Smithers,” Rinaldi said.
His concerns were echoed by the company which says that the northwest has a particular challenge getting satellite internet.
“Unfortunately, Terrace is covered by the Legacy satellite where you can only get up to a three megabite per second download speed,” said Bill Macdonald, senior vice president of Xplornet.
Xplornet says that it is “in the process of upgrading the Legacy satellite so customers can get up to 5Mbps” and it could possibly finish the five- to seven-year project as soon as this September.
But anyone hoping to get on Xplornet’s faster network would be out of luck because the company has maxed out its space on the Legacy satellite with existing customers.
The error greatly affected Xplornet’s service in past years with the internet often becoming unusable for many customers when the system gets overloaded.
“The challenge is that we get people on the network, but the way people are using that network changes,” said Macdonald, explaining that the number of customers on the network only started to overload the system once users started trying to do more things online.
Galaxy’s vice-president of sales Doug Harvey said they “use a much lower contention rate – other satellite companies are trying to put way more people on the bandwidth than we do, so we have more consistency and faster speeds.”
But Galaxy only offers up to 3Mbps and is not in a position to upgrade to a faster system in the near future.
“Xplornet has a higher power satellite, we are just considering our options right now,” said Harvey.
Galaxy was the recipient of a federal grant for $987,000 to provide internet to other areas of northwestern B.C. after Xplornet was no longer able to take customers, but that internet is still not high speed.
The slow process of helping remote or rural areas catch up with the bigger centres in Canada can be trying, and the Nisga’a communities, another 50 km past Rosswood, put in their own fibre optic lines in 2000 so that they could get high speed internet services at a time when remote communities were just starting to get dial-up.
Telus is the company that currently runs telephone lines out to Rosswood, but they say those lines would need significant engineering in order to connect customers to internet as well.
“We currently have no concrete plans to build a wireless internet site in Rosswood [and] the fibre [optic lines meant for internet] we have in the area connects back to our central network – it doesn’t run near homes in the area and would require a significant amount of planning [and] capital to extend it,” said Liz Sauve of Telus.
CityWest provides service up Hwy113 to Freeman Road, but nothing beyond that, meaning there are also residents on Terrace’s outskirts who rely on satellite internet.
“We have applied for grants to the federal government’s Connecting Canadians Program to help provide some funding so that we can service areas such as Gossen, Kleanza, and Usk, but have not received any response at this time,” said Donovan Dias of CityWest. Still, CityWest is interested in Rosswood’s petition.
“It’s phenomenal that there is a demand for our services out there. So now we have to go to the drawing board to see what it would cost,” said Dias, explaining that it is likely the company would need to figure out a way to subsidize the cost to make it a profitable decision.
“Then we will present it back to the folks in Rosswood to help with the project costs [or] we could potentially look at grants [from the government],” explained Dias.
The most likely program that would benefit the area would be the Connecting Canadians program, a $305 million project “that came 40 percent under budget and will now go into a second round of proposals,” according to Jake Enwright, Minister James Moore’s press secretary.
A date for applications to the second round of the program has not been set yet, so it is clear that people in Terrace’s surrounding areas might be waiting for high speed internet a while longer.
BAD FOR BUSINESS
Don Kirkby is owner of the Skeena RV Park in Usk – a short 15 minute drive on Hwy 16 east of Terrace – and he says that customers are demanding internet service that he can’t provide.
“Everybody wants it, people like to camp, but they don’t like to camp without their laptop,” Kirkby explained.
“Some people are here for long periods, internet is fairly important, especially for these people that work.”
Because of popular demand, Kirkby installed Telus Hub last month, a Wi-Fi system that picks up internet service through the cellular network.
But, he says that it is often very slow, frequently cuts out, and is quite expensive.
“I pay almost $90 for the first 10 gigabytes [of data] and then $50 per gigabyte after that. The park used up 13 gigabytes in two weeks,” he said.
So where is getting high speed internet on Kirkby’s priorities?
“If you want to attract customers, it’s pretty high,” he said, citing that most customers even book their stay online.
“I think the government should regulate that Telus and other carriers have to supply outlying areas, not just where the money is,” he explained of his frustration that the small community goes without the basic service.
“Do I think that internet suppliers should do a better job of serving the outlying areas? I do.”