When Lisa Grey and her family moved to Forest Grove from the Lower Mainland last year, they thought the community had everything they needed.
Shortly after they settled in, though, Grey – who works as a director of a software quality assurance team and is in contact with people all over the U.S., Canada, and India – realized the Internet service in her neighbourhood was spotty at best. Video meetings with clients during the day were choppy or cut out altogether. Most times, there’s a lag when she speaks to others during the call.
“We knew there wasn’t cell service out here but we were told Internet wasn’t a problem because xplornet would take care of our needs,” Grey said, noting she wasn’t aware of the latency until the installer arrived to put in the service. “We didn’t know to ask the questions about lag time or what our Internet needs would be. There are zero other options.”
The Cariboo Regional District is reaching out to people like Grey – and other residents and businesses across the region – to map out the current gaps in broadband and cellular coverage across the region. A new survey, released last week, seeks to obtain information about existing services for both residents and businesses in the CRD to assist with future planning and strategy development intended to improve high-speed internet service in rural areas.
Once the survey is completed, the CRD hopes to tap into a pot of federal or provincial grants, which aim to improve service to ensure British Columbians have access to a Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission standard of 50 Mbps down and 10 Mbps up. At the moment, about 70 percent of rural communities – and 75 percent of First Nations – do not meet that standard.
Grey’s download speed, for instance, is about 10 Mbps.
“The COVID epidemic has brought to the fore that this is critical infrastructure that has to be in place; the fires and floods too,” said CRD Director Maureen LeBourdais, who represents Horsefly, Likely and 150 Mile House. “Certainly we saw in our more remote areas the challenges that remote areas face in emergencies, where pockets of communities don’t have phone coverage or broadband. It does hamper emergency planning when you can’t reach people.”
LeBourdais said Internet services are critical for the Cariboo-Chilcotin, especially as more people work from home during COVID-19 or are moving here to escape the city. Seniors need access to telehealth for prescriptions, while the Internet is crucial to attracting young workers and families and boosting economic diversity.
“In addition to public safety, a lot of people have home-based businesses,” LeBourdais said. “Lots of people move to the area but then realize they don’t have the Internet service they need to run their business. It’s a significant economic development strategy that we can use to attract people. We can market our lifestyle, quality of life, small schools. If we don’t have that, we can’t attract people here.”
The survey will identify what Internet and cell services are available, if people are happy with them, and how much they’re willing to pay for improvements, LeBourdais said. By identifying performance measures. download and upload speeds and specific clusters of service, the CRD can determine the best service and delivery model for the region.
“We can see the Internet is the only thing holding the global economy together right now. If we can’t compete internally in the global economy because we don’t have the infrastructure that’s only going to hurt us,” LeBourdais said.
CRD Chair Margo Wagner, director for Canim Lake-Forest Grove, said the lack of Internet in some rural areas has already deterred people from coming here, with realtors reporting that sales have fallen through when people realize they don’t have the service they need.
“This is probably one of the biggest issues in our area,” she said. “It’s having a huge economic effect.”
Grey said she was encouraged when she heard Telus was installing a new cell tower in Forest Grove five kilometres from her house, thinking it would provide them at the very least with cell service, if not Telus broadband. “It was a big surprise to know the tower did not help us at all,” she said.
Liz Sauvé, Telus manager of public relations, maintains the Greys’ property is not included in the tower coverage and said others may not see improvements due to several factors at play. She said it would be easier to look at individual addresses to pinpoint any issues with the tower, which provides 4G LTE coverage to the area.
It was installed to bring wireless connectivity to some residents in the area for the first time, and enhance the safety of travel throughout the area by enabling residents to call for help in the event of a roadside emergency.
However, Wagner said there are several people in Forest Grove who haven’t seen any improvement since the 45-metre tower was installed. She has submitted specific names, addresses and mapping to Telus and has also informed them that fibre optic had been laid in the area years ago that has never been accessed. She has yet to hear back.
LeBourdais noted fibre optic is also available on the Likely Road past Big Lake but many residents can’t plug into it.
Grey said if her Internet worsens, her family may have to consider moving although it’s not something she wants to do, having come to the Cariboo to get out of the city. To compensate, she has trained her team to deal with the lag time, or contacts them through slack if her connection fails in a meeting.
“I really want to see nature. We have 24 acres out here and it’s beautiful,” she said. “When I spend time at the post office or the general store there’s a sense of community … everyone really matters. We have been here a year and a half and we feel we have roots.”
The survey is accessible for residents at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/cariboord-res or businesses at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/cariboord-bus.
Printed versions of the survey will be available for those who are unable to access the online version. They can be obtained from the CRD offices in Williams Lake, Quesnel and 100 Mile House during regular office hours. CRD libraries that are currently open will also have printed copies of the survey available for pick-up.
Completed copies of the printed version can be returned to the CRD offices mentioned above, or open CRD libraries via the book deposit slot. Printed versions of the survey can be downloaded from the CRD website at: https://www.cariboord.ca/broadband-connectivity-survey