Test results show many users don’t have access to minimum speeds needed for everyday internet use — even when they pay for

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The results of nearly 69,000 internet speed tests conducted last year demonstrate the extent to which high-speed internet remains a pipe dream for many residents in both rural areas and larger cities.

A Local News Data Hub analysis of tests completed in 53 communities identified Surrey, B.C. and Quebec City as the only two places where 50 per cent or more of test results exceeded the basic service objectives for both upload and download speeds set by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

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The commission says Canadian households should have internet connections with access to broadband speeds of at least 50 megabits per second (mbps) for downloads and 10 mbps for uploads.

Apart from Surrey and Quebec City, however, the majority of test results in all of the other 51 communities fell short of meeting the CRTC’s basic service objectives. This included 18 places where less than 10 per cent of the tests met the speed standards.

Details of service provider contracts submitted with 11,385 tests also showed that users weren’t getting what they paid for. A comparison of the contract details with test results showed that the contracted download and upload speeds were delivered in only nine per cent of cases.

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Brent Devolin, the mayor of Minden Hills, Ont., said residents in his community need high speed connectivity for work, health and education purposes. “All of those today require a certain minimum level of connectivity,” he said, “and we’re sadly lacking.”

Minden Hills, a town of about 6,100 people located three hours north of Toronto, had among the worst test results in the country, according to the analysis of 2020 test data provided by the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA). Of the 960 tests conducted in Minden Hills last year, only four met both of the CRTC’s performance objectives. The median download speed for all tests in Minden Hills was 3.275 mbps, far short of the CRTC’s performance objective of 50 mbps. The median upload speed was 0.62 mbps, nowhere near the CRTC’s 10 mbps standard. (The median is the middle value separating the higher half from the lower half of a range of numbers.)

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Poor internet service, Devolin says, is the biggest drag on local development: “Anybody that chooses to move to an area or operate or expand a business, all of them have a need for connectivity.” He called his home internet service provider about 50 times last year about connectivity problems, he said, but got little satisfaction and has never received the promised upload and download speed he pays for.

Devolin said there have been marginal improvements this year and there are plans afoot for additional upgrades, but the situation still leaves much to be desired: “If 10 was perfection and zero was the status quo…it’s (now) a 2/10.”

The CRTC says 87.4 per cent of households in Canada can access speeds of at least 50/10 mbps, but this drops to 45.6 per cent in rural areas. Higher download speeds allow users to retrieve online content such as web pages, videos, files, or music more quickly. Upload speed dictates how fast pictures, music, and documents can be uploaded and shared.

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The Data Hub, launched in January by the Local News Research Project at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, analyzed the results of 68,813 tests that internet users completed last year using CIRA’s performance test. CIRA, a national not-for-profit organization that promotes trust in the internet, launched the test in 2015, and since then people who want to determine their connection speed have performed nearly one million tests.

While the test results are not necessarily representative of all internet service in a community, they do point to the challenges many Canadians faced during a pandemic year when fast, reliable internet service was a lifeline. Tests conducted in communities with fewer than 50,000 people, for instance, significantly underperformed when compared to the CRTC’s 50/10 standard.

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The best test results among these smaller places were in Bracebridge, Ont. but they weren’t much to boast about. Just 23 per cent of all tests met or exceeded both CRTC performance objectives, the median download speed was 15.56 mbps and the median upload speed was 1.53 mbps.

“Rural and remote internet performance has essentially flatlined over the course of the pandemic… starting with a very low level of performance and essentially remaining there,” said CIRA chief executive officer Byron Holland.

Holland said the “massive degradation” of internet performance just outside of most major cities translates into fewer opportunities for individuals and a significant constraint on economic growth: “Pretty much overnight we saw the majority of people having to figure out how to work, go to school, get health care, among other things, let alone a little bit of recreation, all of it online, and in a way that people really hadn’t ever had to do before,” he said. “And that, without a doubt, has stressed the infrastructure and really shone a light on … the digital divide.”

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That divide is all too apparent to Alana Hnatiw, the mayor of Sturgeon County, Alta. Although she can see the Edmonton skyline from a park in her community of 20,000, she said the two places have little in common when it comes to connectivity speeds. Only six per cent of CIRA tests conducted in Sturgeon County met both of the CRTC’s speed standards. The median download speed for all tests was 9.065 mbps; the median upload speed 1.55 mbps.

The test results for Edmonton, by comparison, tell a much different story: 47 per cent of tests met or exceeded the CRTC speed objectives, the median download speed was 67.555 mbps, and the upload speed was 14.905 mbps.

Hnatiw said that reliable high-speed internet, like electricity and other basic services, must be available 24/7: “Imagine if you could only turn your lights on in your house during certain times of the day?”

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She added: “You’ve got small businesses and medium-sized businesses that are hugely disadvantaged. They can’t access the online shoppers to the same degree (as) their competitors, a couple miles down the road or in another province.”

While the test results confirmed that problems with accessing high-speed internet are most pronounced in smaller places, residents in rural areas weren’t alone in their digital misery. In Milton, Ont., a suburban community of more than 110,000 just west of Toronto, only 13 per cent of CIRA tests met the CRTC objectives for upload and download speeds. In Regina, Sask., where the median download speed for all tests performed was 23.555 mbps and the median upload speed was 6.685 mbps, just 23 per cent of tests met or exceeded the CRTC’s standards.

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The Data Hub’s analysis also showed that although median speeds exceeded the CRTC standards in some larger cities, lacklustre test results still pointed to problems with access to good quality internet. In Toronto, for instance, the median download speed on 7,651 tests was a respectable 55.46 mbps and the median upload speed was 12.74 mbps. Only 42 per cent of speed tests, however, met or exceeded the basic CRTC standard.

In top-performing Surrey, by comparison, 55 per cent of tests met or exceeded the CRTC’s 50/10 performance objectives. The median download speed on tests conducted in the Vancouver suburb was 82.61 mbps, while the median upload speed was 20.09 mbps.

Testers in Quebec City, where half of all tests met or exceeded the CRTC standards, also had relatively fewer connectivity headaches. The median download speed was 54.17 mbps and the median upload speed was 11.36 mbps.

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Factors that can affect upload and download speeds include the make and model of the device being used, whether other apps are running in the background, and whether other devices are online at the same time.

While the type of service purchased from internet service providers is also a factor, testers who submitted information on their contracts pointed out that what they were paying for and what they got were often two very different things.

One tester in Burlington, Ont., home to about 183,000 people, reported purchasing a download speed of 350 mbps and upload speed of 30 mbps. But in comments to CIRA, the tester said it is impossible to “even connect to a Zoom meeting due to poor internet speeds despite purchasing the highest plans.” Test results for that user’s location documented a download speed of 27.42 mbps and upload speed of 6.27 mbps. Both fall well short of the CRTC’s 50/10 service objectives.

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Another customer in Huntsville, Ont. reported paying $200 a month for 70/10 service. The customer’s CIRA test, however, recorded a download speed of 5.52 mbps and an underwhelming upload speed of 0.07 mbps. “NO OTHER OPTION. Impossible to work or do school from home,” the tester wrote in the CIRA comments section.

In emailed statements, Bell Canada and Rogers Communications, two of Canada’s largest telecoms, both pointed to a CRTC study released last September that concluded the majority of Canadian internet service providers met or exceeded the maximum advertised download and upload speeds.

Nathan Gibson, a spokesman for Bell, said in his email that it is “hard for us to offer any specific comment on your data sets without seeing them.” (CIRA officials said the detailed test results are proprietary but were willing to share them with the Local News Data Hub on the condition that only results of the analysis would be published.)

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Gibson went on to note, however, that the CRTC expects 90 per cent of Canadians to have access to 50/10 mbps by the end of this year.

“Delivering broadband to the remaining 10 per cent in such a large country like Canada is a challenge,” he wrote, “but Bell is leading the way by accelerating our roll out of our fibre and rural Wireless Home Internet networks.”

In its response, Rogers said the company “is committed to delivering reliable internet service to more rural, remote and Indigenous communities.” Advertised speeds, the statement said, “reflect the total speed to the home to support multiple devices online at the same time. The top speeds for each internet tier we offer are advertised as ‘up to,’ as many factors can affect the actual speeds a customer experiences.”

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The federal government has created a $2.75 billion Universal Broadband Fund to expand internet service at 50/10 mbps to rural and remote communities. The CRTC, meanwhile, is collecting $750 million from larger Canadian telecommunications service providers for a Broadband Fund to improve broadband internet access in underserved areas.

The Data Hub analysis included only the 53 communities with at least 500 test results. In cases where fewer than 40 tests were done from a single location during the year, the results of every test were included in the analysis. In some cases, however, dozens or even hundreds of tests were conducted from the same location. To prevent these “super tester” locations from skewing the data, each is represented in the data as a single test result reflecting the median upload and download speeds for all tests from that location. This meant that in the end, the results of 68,813 tests conducted from 26,677 test locations were used in the analysis.

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This story was produced by the Local News Data Hub, a project of the Local News Research Project at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism. The Canadian Press is an operational partner of the initiative. Detailed information on the data and methodology can be found here:

https://localnewsdatahub.ca/2021/08/how-we-did-it-internet-speed-st

https://localne

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