Sunday, October 17, 2021

Internet woes in the pandemic age

Online education hits speed bump, business suffers

  • May 19 2021
  • By Lois Ann Dort, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    

CANSO – Most people who live in rural Nova Scotia have experienced the buffering spiral when attempting to stream a movie. Before the pandemic, that was just an annoyance. But in this era of Zoom meetings and online schooling, this issue has been recognized for what it is: a critical failure of infrastructure that negatively impacts the economic, educational and social lives of those who choose to live in rural areas.

Online education

On May 11, Canso area resident Jennifer Roberts wrote on her Facebook account: “Anyone going through what I am this morning with no Internet, Jessica at the MLA office wants to hear from you. The more folks that call the more action will happen. Internet is an essential service in 2021 and it’s about time we have it. Please call.”

The post generated more than 50 comments and almost 30 shares, as well as a number of calls to MLA Lloyd Hines’ constituency office in Guysborough.

Roberts spoke with The Journal on May 16 about her online schooling experience with three children in grades Primary, two and five.

“Like many other families we have moved to online learning because of … COVID-19 restrictions – and what should be an essential service in 2021 is not in our area. I have at my residence [just outside of Canso] Seaside Communications Internet and in my other residence in town [Canso] I have Bell, and both are not adequate. You’re constantly getting bumped off – it is fine in regular times, if you’re just streaming a movie and you get bumped off, you can live with that. But when you are seeing heartbreak across your kitchen table with our kids, when they just want to log in and see their teachers and their peers, it’s super frustrating,” Roberts said.

Schools do offer education packages to students who don’t have access to Internet, or who have unreliable access, but Roberts said that shouldn’t be necessary for her or many other families in the Canso area who are paying for Internet service.

“We are paying through the nose for Internet. Bills around here range from $90 to $150 for monthly service which should be working,” she said.

In addition to getting schoolwork done, she said online learning provides her children the opportunity to be part of a community of their peers, something she thinks is important for their mental health during lockdown.

“They get so excited to get on there. Most of the teachers let them have a little time to talk and share what is going on. One of the teachers always says, ‘Tell me one thing that you are learning during isolation.’ Another asks, ‘What is exciting in isolation?’” Not being able to take part in these conversations leaves her 10-year-old in tears, Roberts said.

Roberts, a certified teacher who works as a substitute in the Canso area, added, “I get very frustrated about the Internet but I also get very sad for our community because in our community right now, this time of year, most of the parents in our community are seasonal workers and I know that there are families like ours, I am solo parenting [while her husband is working away from home]. I don’t have another person to help, to come home at night to pick up the slack. There are also other families where both parents are seasonal workers – they’re either on a boat or in a fish plant right now – and it is the older siblings that are picking up the slack and I can only imagine how frustrated they are to do their own schooling and helping their younger siblings.”

As the next week of online learning draws near, Roberts said she is already feeling anxious. “This week I think I’ll pack up my kids and go to the other place [in Canso] and try to use the Internet there. But I know my good friend, who has four children online learning in town, she has to strategically place them around the house so they don’t bump each other off. I don’t know, even if I take my mobile classroom to town, if it will be any better.”

Business woes

Mike Hedley moved to Canso from Ontario three years ago. He and his wife run a computer consulting business from their home.

“We rely on the Internet for email and connect remotely to client computers for support. It has been a joke just trying to get decent Internet service,” he said.

The couple moved to Canso because friends of theirs from Ontario had also moved to the community, but Hedley said, if they had known the quality, or lack thereof, of Internet service, they might have chosen another east coast community in which to settle.

When Hedley first moved to Canso, Bell offered LTE cellular service in the area. “There was a tower relatively close, and it provided reliable high-speed Internet at a somewhat exorbitant price but nevertheless it was functional. Then, they either cut down the tower, cut it off or moved it; the service dropped by about 200 per cent. We went to DSL, which is what everybody here has, but we have two high-speed business lines, seven mbps supposedly. For the last six months we’re lucky if we get half that speed,” he said.

Hedley has been in the computer business for more than 40 years and has worked with subcontractors for Bell in Ontario. He said, “I know a fair amount about the Internet, routers, the hardware that is used in building an infrastructure. So, I don’t put up with some of their nonsense they might feed to a regular residential subscriber … Sometimes the squeaky wheel gets service, but we shouldn’t have to do that. We have so many young families trying to homeschool kids, or seniors who rely on the Internet to communicate with family and friends – and you just can’t get it.”

Hedley believes reliable Internet will only come to Canso and other areas like it if citizens ask for it – loudly. “We need to get after our MLA and get him to put some pressure on Bell Aliant,” he said.

MLA response

MLA Lloyd Hines, whose riding includes Canso, sent The Journal the following statement in regard to Internet service in the area: “My office welcomed valuable input this week, as it does in practice at all times, from constituents regarding their internet service, but predominantly regarding online learning for their children.

“Develop Nova Scotia’s task of providing fibre optic internet is well underway and has been subjected to the same pandemic interruptions as us all. We will see the fruits of our labour soon but please be ensured that the voice of the people will be actioned, and I will continue to advocate for an expedient implementation of the planned improvements of this essential service,” wrote Hines.

“Rural families deserve the same online learning advantages as our urban areas and I am committed to my on-going work of procuring our fair share,” Hines stated. “Regarding the education of our children, it’s important to me that families know to contact their child’s school immediately should they need support. The school will supply you with the necessary accommodations for online or off-line learning.”