Rosette Okala was expecting her Rogers bill to be higher last month — because she’s working from home during the pandemic and doesn’t have unlimited internet — but not hundreds of dollars higher.
It shot from about $160 per month to $540.
“I almost dropped,” said Okala, a pharmaceutical employee whose job requires being online. Her 12-year-old son has been online more too, doing schoolwork.
Okala lives in a part of Pickering — just outside Toronto — that is considered rural. So she has to connect to high-speed internet through a cellular network because her area lacks cable or fibre optic infrastructure. She pays $145 a month for 100 gigabytes, anything above that is $5 per GB.
“This is just a slap in our face,” said Okala. “We [rural customers] pay huge bills just to be able to do something basic that most people take for granted.”
Okala is still waiting to hear from her employer whether a portion of her bill will be covered — a question for many employees and employers across the country at this time. But she says she’s frustrated, nonetheless.
“How do you justify this type of bill?” she asks.
Go Public has heard from dozens of telecom customers who say COVID-19 has laid bare the digital divide in this country — the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who can’t get access to affordable, high-speed internet.
Like Okala, they must connect using a satellite or a cellular network, which have much less capacity. The telcos say internet services that run through cable can handle 50 to 200 times more traffic.
Many are now paying data overages that are two, three, even four times more than usual — translating to bills that are hundreds of dollars higher and adding financial stress during the pandemic.
“It’s really sad to hear,” said Laura Tribe, executive director of OpenMedia, an organization that advocates for equal access to affordable internet and which is urging Canada’s big telcos to remove all data caps on all cellular services.
“Data caps are definitely unnecessary,” said Tribe. “We see them as a punitive mechanism to make sure that people suppress the amount of data that they use and overpay when they go over what they want.”
In March the big telcos — Bell, Rogers and Telus — lifted data caps on all residential internet services that use cable or fibre optic as a goodwill gesture during the pandemic. Those caps have been lifted until the end of June.
But the move doesn’t help people who depend on hubs using cellular networks.
When Okala recovered from the sticker shock of her latest bill, she called Rogers to negotiate.
She says she spent hours talking with a Rogers representative who only offered her a $30 credit and a payment plan for her massive bill.
She declined, called back a few days later and negotiated a $100 credit and 50 per cent off her monthly service fees for the next two years. A Rogers spokesperson says Okala was also informed of a new plan offered to all Rogers customers that would reduce future bills which she declined.
“I get messages from them [Rogers] everyday that say, ‘We are in this together. We are here to help,'” said Okala. “I was very disappointed.”
Likewise, John Burbidge got an unwelcome surprise when his March bill from Bell shot up to $650, from $280 the previous month.
The University of Waterloo economics professor lives in North Dumfries — a rural town of just over 10,000 people near Cambridge, Ont. So his internet also connects through a cellular hub.
He’d received an email from Bell saying extra usage fees would be waived for residential internet customers during the pandemic. He assumed — incorrectly — this included his account.
“If Bell is reducing bills for going over data limits in plans for some people and not others, that is annoying,” said Burbidge.
“If rural Canadians are expected to work and do school work from home, decent and reasonably priced access to the internet is a basic right. Bell should not be allowed to gouge rural customers.”
In response to his complaint, Bell spokesperson Nathan Gibson told Go Public it’s “a challenge” to provide better service in rural areas but that Bell has spent “significantly more” than other providers to improve communication services in less populated areas.
During the COVID-19 crisis, Bell has offered an extra 10 GB and a $10 credit to all customers using a hub on a mobile network.
After Go Public contacted Bell about Burbidge, the company offered him a further $350 credit for March and 60 per cent off overages for April, but said he will be responsible for future overage charges. Burbidge pays $180 for 100 GB a month — anything over that is $5 per GB.
Others in rural communities are feeling the isolation and deep frustration of not having access to high-speed internet — at all.
Bell customer Jeremiah Gillett lives in White Lake, Ont., a rural community 80 kilometres from Ottawa. His older, DSL connection does not even come close to the minimum speed aimed for by the government for all Canadians.
As an airline pilot, he says internet access is crucial for work updates, and his four children are all doing school work from home.
His connection is so slow when one of his children is online, no one else can use the internet.
“It adds a huge level of frustration because it means you can’t get stuff done when you need to, and it means everybody is co-ordinating,” said Gillett.
“I’m on the phone every few months with the telecoms to try and get things improved,” he said. “They’ve been telling me for years that fibre optic is just a few years away. And it remains who knows how many years away.”
Public safety issue
The association representing wireless telecom companies says the industry spends $3 billion a year to deliver better services to their customers, but it won’t remove caps for customers who use a cellular network in rural areas because that could overwhelm the system.
“The issue comes down to the capacity that those networks are actually able to handle,” said Rob Ghiz, executive director of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association.
He says there’s a difference between broadband in urban areas, where caps have been lifted, and rural areas where they rely on cellular connection through a hub, which are designed using a low-band spectrum — great for distance, but the system can’t carry a lot of data.
Clogging up the system would put 911 and first responder calls at risk, Ghiz says. But Ghiz wouldn’t respond to questions about whether the networks are close to being overwhelmed.
Tribe says that’s an industry excuse — that data usage is at its highest right now, putting into question the need for caps on data at all.
“They’re a way to increase profits and suppress the usage of the networks,” says Tribe.
Too little, too late?
The federal government set 2030 as the target date for universal access for high-speed internet.
In a statement to Go Public, a spokesperson for Rural Economic Development Minister Maryam Monsef said the government committed $1 billion to the Universal Broadband Fund in its last budget and said it will spend several billion more over the next decade for a patchwork of related initiatives.
Neither Monsef nor Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains — who is responsible for overseeing telecommunications infrastructure and industry — would respond to questions about whether those efforts would result in an earlier target date.
After enquiries from Go Public, Rogers offered to take another $230 off Okala’s March bill and give her the hub for free.
“We … regret that we were not able to resolve the issue more quickly,” said Sarah Schmidt, Rogers’ director of communications.
That brings temporary relief for Okala. But she says the underlying problem — poor internet infrastructure — still exists. She’s calling on the telcos and government to do more.
“I know you need to make a return on your investment,” she said.
“But … help us out. You’re making an investment in communities, that is really needed.”
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