David Graham, Member of Parliament for Laurentides–Labelle, is on a mission to get fast, reliable, and affordable Internet to all Canadians. Availability, an often ignored pillar of information security, can have significant social and economic consequences. Graham estimates that only twenty per cent of homes in the largest county in his electoral district have 10 Mbps Internet or better, while for a third, dial-up or satellite remain the only options.
Graham began his career as a technology journalist. For eight years he served on the board of Software in the Public Interest and was an editor of Linux.com. His strong technical background distinguishes him from his colleagues; Graham is likely the only Member of Parliament who understands how the Internet really works.
According to Graham, “This problem is not unique to Laurentides–Labelle, with the majority of deeply rural ridings facing the same, or worse, circumstances. Cell phone coverage is not any better, with vast swaths of the region having zero or very limited service, so using a cell phone Internet stick is not a viable alternative. Even in places where full LTE service is available, the unforgivably expensive 1 to 6 GB per month data caps make the service a non-viable alternative. We are significantly behind urban and suburban Canada in the area of connectivity.”
Since the Internet became mainstream in the mid 90’s, Canadians have experienced a rapid evolution in information technology. Governments and businesses provide a vast array of services via the Internet. In many cases email has replaced postal mail. Instant messaging has reduced telephone call volumes. Scanning and emailing has replaced fax machines as the predominant way to send documents.
This change has been so profound that it is difficult for urban dwellers to remember a time before high-speed Internet; most under the age of 20 have never lived without it. In Canadian cities, a download speed of 10 Mbps is considered slow, perhaps suitable for one person. Internet connections with 50 to 250 Mbps down and 5 to 20 Mbps up are commonly available. The 5 Mbps/800 Kbps DSL connections of last decade are antiquated. In rural areas, the picture is much different, placing many families at a distinct disadvantage.
Graham says, “costs are completely out of sync with urban connectivity. As with most infrastructure, private companies are seldom interested in investing as the profits are not great enough, and when they do they offer service to community cores but not community outskirts. The 20 per cent of Labelle (the largest county in my riding) that has 10 Mpbs service is the 20 per cent that live in a downtown core, not the vast number of people who live on small dirt roads where their families have been for generations.”
“Our social and economic problems are related to this,” Graham explained. ”With youth leaving for their education and not returning, new businesses and migrants not coming north, and the present population average age advancing in near real-time, there is limited economic growth. The disparity between rural and urban continues to worsen at an ever-increasing rate. Telecommuters have more difficulty moving to the area and setting up shop here than they would in the city. Looking at houses and business locations and finding a great big red X on their mobile phone scares them off, grandparents have more trouble convincing their grandchildren to come to the cottage because they are not able to get online, and businesses are often unable to operate effectively because of inadequate connectivity. One business in the largest city in my riding reported having to spend $80,000 just to have an adequate connection for their service.”
The impact on youth is of particular concern: “Elementary and high school students are now expected to do more and more electronically, even in places where it is not possible. We have received many stories of people going to friend’s houses, neighbour’s houses, or their city hall after hours looking for a WiFi signal to submit their children’s assignments,” Graham explained.
The absence of quality Internet connectivity denies educational opportunities. For example, the edX learning platform, founded by Harvard and The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), provides anyone with an Internet connection access to courses from Harvard, MIT, and other partner academic institutions. edX offers courses for high school students, adults wishing to learn new skills, and those seeking university credit courses. Many courses are free, with optional certificates available for $25 to $99.
Coursera, another leader in online education, boasts over 2000 courses from 145 partners across 28 countries. Among those partners are the University of Alberta, McMaster University, and University of Toronto. Some courses are free, while others cost $50 to $100. Financial aid is also available.
While free and low-cost online education may not replace a college or university degree, it provides an alternative for those without the time or money to attend. It also provides valuable educational opportunities for high school students who have access to high-speed Internet.
Graham concluded, “These are serious economic and social issues and they need to be addressed forcefully and head-on. The time for playing around is at an end. Internet access is essential to participate in modern society. Equal Internet access must be treated as what it has become: a basic right.”