Internet investments sorely needed

By Mike Baker

It was difficult last week listening to some of our local students talk about the struggles they have had and obstacles they’ve faced with online learning.

As highlighted in today’s front page story, one student had to abandon his plans to graduate and attend university after falling behind in an important credit last spring, while another had to leave Haliburton altogether to ensure she kept her grades up.

The elephant in the room at the root of all of these issues is internet connectivity, or lack thereof.

While some of our more urban centres, such as Minden and Haliburton village, have recently been fitted with fibre optic lines, providing reliable internet options to residents within parts of those communities, rural households are forced to make do with aging technology that, quite frankly, is getting pretty close to being obsolete. Or at least it should be.

Many of these households are paying top dollar to tap into mediocre internet that is provided via a small number of service towers spread across the region. The problem is, there are so many individual households pinging off of those few towers that it brings internet speeds to a grinding halt.

One student shared with me that using popular streaming services such as Netflix, or websites such as YouTube is a practical impossibility. Even simple Google searches will give him problems from time to time.

Imagine this individual’s reaction then, when he was told early last year that he would no longer be allowed to go to school and instead would be required to tap into a live stream for several hours each and every day at the exact same time that dozens, if not hundreds of other people will be trying to do the same thing…

Now I’m not suggesting that schools shouldn’t have been closed. What I am saying is the provincial government should have come up with a better plan and given more thought to students who don’t have access to reliable internet. These kids were basically left to sink last year. That is totally and completely unacceptable.

Even an idea as simple as the one introduced by Point in Time’s Marg Cox earlier this year – delivering cell phones with high data capacities to those in need – would have sufficed as a short-term fix. With all the money that has been thrown around over the past year, one would think a small amount could have been allocated to make sure all of our students could continue learning throughout the pandemic.

Even though our kids have now returned to school, this issue isn’t going away. It’s going to require significant attention, and investment, from both the provincial and federal governments over the next few years. New technologies will need to be embraced. We need to put pressure on our elected officials to deliver on their promises to bolster internet options in rural Canada, and soon.

It’s time to bring our rural communities up to speed.