Ontario does not have the broadband infrastructure to support mandatory e-learning

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At the end of last month, the province of Ontario announced changes to the education system. One of the changes is requiring high school students to take mandatory online courses. Ontario’s broadband infrastructure is not even close to being prepared for something like this.

I understand the need to embrace technology, but making something mandatory when there is such a wide divide between rural and urban Internet access makes little to no sense.

I’ve heard stories of parents driving their kids to Tim Horton’s and parking in community centre parking lots so homework can be completed and submitted. If this is happening, how can we possibly justify mandatory online courses? In rural areas, there is either no Internet access or it’s too expensive on a cost per bit basis, relative to their urban peers. There’s no question that high school students in affluent urban areas will have a higher success rate in online courses simply because of the access they have.

There’s also bandwidth to consider. If the government is going to deliver healthcare and other services to the home along with education, all of those working “sessions” have to co-exist simultaneously and concurrently, and they all have to work properly. The current asymmetrical Internet connections available in rural areas don’t support this much activity. All of the applications contend for bandwidth, and it’s shared among hundreds or thousands of households on a node.

During peak periods, the bandwidth degrades, and because the connections are asymmetrical they are very poor at two-way communications required for video conferencing, which is sometimes necessary to support patient-and-doctor or student-and-teacher sessions.

About a month after the province’s education changes were announced, Xplornet, a leading broadband service provider, announced its JUPITER 3 Satellite, which will “offer download speeds of 100 Megabits per second, the fastest residential Internet speeds offered by satellite for rural Canada,” explains the release. JUPITER 3 is planned to launch in 2021, and it’s apparently “designed to provide coverage of 90% of Canada's population.”

This is actually bad news for rural residents and businesses. If Xplornet and the government think 100 Mbps download is fast enough, then rural residents will never have equitable access to high-speed Internet.

At best, this is a temporary solution while ISPs and all levels of government work on connecting rural areas with 1 Gbps symmetrical on a dedicated connection. This speed is available in wealthy urban areas today, and for as little as $100 a month, sometimes even cheaper.

Unfortunately, the government’s goal of 50/10 Mbps by 2030 will only make the digital divide worse. The federal government will use taxpayer money to deliver 100 Mbps download and it will be declared a victory, when in reality, we’re not even close to providing the type of Internet access that rural residents, students, and businesses need in order to compete on a local and global scale.

Campbell Patterson