How We Work from Home

Once the pandemic is over, many people intend to keep working from home – if only their lousy rural internet will co-operate.

September 18, 2020 | | Community

When the Covid lockdown suddenly turned much of Toronto into a vast, eerily quiet urban dormitory last March, Joan and Murray McDonald’s home in the city’s west end started to feel uncomfortably confined. Many of the nearby parks were closed, along with almost every other urban amenity. Murray’s office in a downtown tower was also declared out of bounds. So the McDonalds packed up and headed for the hills, where they own a picturesque weekend home in Hockley Valley.

“We’ve been here in Hockley throughout the pandemic, and I’ve been working remotely since March,” says Murray, a 38-year veteran with one of Canada’s biggest corporate accounting firms. “Like a lot of other people, I’ve discovered I don’t need to be in the office five days a week. For me, I think, the future will likely be a hybrid mix of office work and working from home.”

McDonald is far from alone in forecasting an increase in working from home. According to a recent Statistics Canada survey, about 40 per cent of Canadians have jobs that can be done outside a traditional office setting.

Another survey of the public, this one by the Angus Reid Institute, indicates 20 per cent of Canadians say they intend to keep working primarily from home if and when their offices reopen.

“I think we may see many of Toronto’s office towers converted to condos,” muses Caledon mayor Allan Thompson. “A lot more people are working from home in Caledon and other similar areas. It’s the new reality.”

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  • Matt Lindsay, the Royal LePage sales representative who helped the McDonalds find their country home, agrees. “There’s a big swing happening,” he says. “Many properties in Caledon, Mono and Mulmur are city folks’ weekend properties. But Covid has brought a lot of those people to live here full-time. And lots more people are coming up from the city now looking to buy properties. I’ve had four sales propelled by the Covid crisis recently.”

    Lindsay’s perspectives are endorsed by data from ninetyminutesfrom, a website that profiles real estate information from 55 towns and cities within a 90-minute drive from Toronto, indicating many of the most attractive relocation destinations for people leaving the city are in Headwaters.

    Government data suggest the urban exodus brought about by Covid may prove enduring. In July, Statistics Canada’s monthly survey of home builders reported rising demand for homes outside Toronto. In the same month, the Canadian Real Estate Association reported that after a slowdown in the early months of the pandemic, both the number of home sales and the prices they fetched across the country reached historic highs.

    Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, studies urban-rural divides in places like Caledon and Dufferin. He theorized in his blog that semi-rural areas near cities are exploding for two main reasons: “First, many have realized that space can be an issue especially when dealing with a pandemic. Spending three months in a two-bedroom apartment can make you think differently about space. Second, telecommuting is an emerging factor. Financially, the case for more telecommuting is very strong. An employee at home spends less on clothes, transportation of course, and restaurants.”

    There are some big environmental benefits as well, says Alexandra Service, climate change specialist for the Town of Caledon. “The global estimate is that Covid has reduced emissions by about 7 per cent,” she notes. “And locally, here in Caledon, the shift towards working from home presents a number of positives in terms of reduced traffic and emissions.”

    The Corporate Shutdown

    Five months after the Covid-19 pandemic forced all Canadians except frontline service providers to stay home, many employers remain reluctant to reopen their offices.

    In Toronto’s downtown financial core – where upwards of 100,000 office workers once kept scores of high-rise towers and hectares of underground malls and food courts humming – life now literally resembles a month of Sundays.

    Many Bay Street banks and financial services companies – including RBC, TD, Scotiabank, CIBC and National Bank – have advised their employees that most of them will be working from home until at least the end of the year.

    Other Canadian companies are making even more drastic moves. In Waterloo, software company OpenText Corporation is permanently reducing its number of offices by half. In Ottawa, Shopify says “office centricity is over,” and most employees will now permanently work remotely. And Rogers, one of Canada’s biggest employers, says its 375 Ottawa customer service agents will work from home as a pilot project to test the fate of its 7,000 call centre employees across Canada.

    By all reports, Canada’s vast work-from-home experiment is going just fine.

    But there’s a hitch. And it’s a big one: In order to work from home, affordable and dependable internet access is vital. Yet across much of rural Canada, including Caledon and Dufferin, service often remains inadequate and fickle. And it can also be extremely pricey.

    For Murray McDonald, the Hockley accountant who juggles some of corporate Canada’s most nuanced financial transactions, it’s a constant hassle. “Some days it’s fine. But some days it’s slow and unreliable, and we’re constantly calling Bell,” he says wearily.

    For Caledon mayor Thompson, “It’s the number one issue that comes up at the door when I’m out meeting with people.”

    And it’s not just a matter of municipal policy and politics, says Thompson. It’s also a highly personal issue – like many of his constituents, his monthly household internet bill often runs to $600 or more.

    “We’re facing a serious crisis around rural people needing internet access to work and access basic services from their homes,” he insists. “We need to get our communities connected.”

    Bandwidth Banditry

    When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Sabine Rohner-Tensee moved as much of her business selling first aid and CPR courses online as she could.

    Working from her countryside home at the north end of Mono, her internet usage rapidly increased, driven by her business needs and her son’s online educational courses, as well as her family’s increased movie downloads through the months in near-total lockdown.

    It was all going reasonably well until July, when Rogers Communications suddenly ended its pandemic-induced moratorium on internet usage charges and presented the Rohner-Tensee family with an $800 monthly bill.

    “Normally Rogers throttles back our internet availability, which keeps the bills down. But for seven months they accidentally let us use as much as we needed,” she explains. “The bill was a shock, although it proved to us that they’re capable of delivering the capacity we need. They just don’t want to make it affordable.”

    Alarmed by the expense, Rohner-Tensee says she immediately tried to negotiate with Rogers, which led nowhere.

    Then she discovered that nearby neighbours Michel Godbout and Sue Mclean had reached a deal with Bell that held their bill below $100 a month. But when Bell refused to offer her the same rate, she began to fear for the future.

    “We can’t afford our internet bills. And that means my business is in jeopardy,” Rohner-Tensee explains. “It also means my son’s online university education could be up in the air.”

    A 2018 Industry Canada study concluded that Canadians pay among the very highest fees in the world for internet access. Nevertheless, in response to petitions for lower internet charges, the federal cabinet decided in August to allow costs to increase further, arguing higher rates are an incentive for corporate investment in unserved or underserviced areas.

    The twin woes of access and affordability form a scenario that’s being played out in hundreds of homes across Headwaters, says John Creelman, deputy mayor of Mono.

    Like Caledon mayor Thompson, Creelman campaigned for election in large part on the issue of expanded internet access. In fact, decent rural internet has been on his agenda since the 1990s when, as mayor at the time, he championed DSL (digital subscriber line) access in Mono.

    These days Creelman is pushing for high-speed wireless internet as well as fibre-based connections. He strongly questions why Bell and others won’t open up the existing fibre optic cables at reasonable rates. “A cable runs along Mono Centre Road from Camilla hamlet on Highway 10 to the Third Line and that’s cheaper than laying down new fibre.”

    There’s also what’s termed “dark fibre,” says Creelman. “That’s fibre that does not carry a signal, that’s just being sat on.” It’s his unconfirmed understanding there is just such a line along the hydro tower corridor that bisects Mono.

    For now Creelman energetically supports initiatives local individuals, businesses and municipalities are cobbling together, such as the installation of personal towers and the growing number of small entrepreneurial wi-fi internet providers who are using existing structures such as barn silos, private poles and other tall structures to hopscotch connections across the countryside. Mono Wireless is one such company. Started by Mitranand Singh, a businessman who moved to Mono and was frustrated by the poor internet service, the company is already offering unlimited bandwidth within five service pods in the town and is actively developing more locations.

    For its part, Creelman says Mono has revised a bylaw that put height restrictions on structures and now allows for posts of up to 80 feet on private property. And it is currently reviewing bids by suppliers to locate a wireless repeater on its water tower on the town’s southern border. Like other local municipalities, Mono has also established a kind of internet café (minus the café) in the municipal office in Mono Centre where people can come to download large files. (For some time, Caledon has welcomed residents to use the town’s wi-fi from the parking lot of its municipal office in Caledon East and in its libraries and recreational centres.)

    Once the pandemic is over, many people intend to keep working from home — if only their lousy rural internet will co-operate. Illustration by Ruth Ann Pearce.

    Once the pandemic is over, many people intend to keep working from home — if only their lousy rural internet will co-operate. Illustration by Ruth Ann Pearce.

    “The essential problem is that the large providers like Bell and Rogers aren’t interested in servicing areas with low population densities,” Creelman explains. In the local countryside, there is no incentive for the likes of this summer’s announcement that Ontario-based Wightman Telecom will invest $56 million to bring 350,000 metres of fibre optic cable to urban Orangeville.

    When Bell Canada contacted the Town of Mono recently to ask for its support in accessing cash from the $750 million Broadband Fund – money collected from Canadian telecom companies that’s earmarked to help deliver rural internet service – Creelman viewed it as an opportunity to seek information.

    “We asked them to provide details about their plans,” he recalls. “That seemed to surprise them. They were basically mounting a political campaign to get access to those funds. We pushed back. Whereas before we couldn’t get our calls returned, we now have their attention.”

    A Web of Power

    Across Canada, rural internet access is an increasingly potent political issue.

    What’s at stake? The economic future of thousands of rural communities, and the millions of rural families who live in them.

    In an era when virtual transactions are quickly eclipsing conventional ones, the hunger for bandwidth recalls the infrastructure competitions of the past, when communities lived and died according to their successes in accessing railroads, highways and rural electrification schemes.

    Shannon Ellis had described her rural internet as adequate – until the pandemic hit. “As a mother who’s working while my two sons are doing their classes online, I need to make online work calls,” she explains, but there’s not enough bandwidth for the two activities to happen simultaneously. She can’t even distract her sons with a movie while she’s on a Zoom conference call.

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  • Ellis was raised in the hills, but moved away after high school. For the past 20 years, she has lived in China, most recently in Shanghai where she worked in corporate communications. Last year she returned to Canada, taking up residence in a log house in rural Mono to be near her family. While the setting could hardly be more different, she is doing largely the same work with the same clients as she was in an apartment in a city of 24 million half a globe away. Her story exactly exemplifies the vital role reliable internet plays not only in connecting rural residents to the global marketplace, but by extension in the very sustainability of rural communities.

    The Response So Far

    In May, 2011, a United Nations commission issued a report declaring broadband access a basic human right, comparable to health care, shelter and food.

    In 2014, the federal government launched a $305 million program aimed at delivering improved internet connectivity for 300,000 underserved rural households. That was expanded in 2016 with a billion-dollar private-public initiative in more than 900 communities and the laying of more than 20,000 kilometres of high-capacity fibre optic network.

    In its 2019 budget, Ottawa announced “historic new investments that will mobilize up to $6 billion toward universal connectivity” – although only $1.7 billion in new federal money was actually pledged.

    According to the government’s 2019 High-Speed Access for All: Canada’s Connectivity Strategy, the internet “is no longer a luxury – it is a necessity.”

    To take full advantage of the internet, federal policymakers say 50/10 speeds are necessary, affording the capacity to download at 50 Mbps and to upload at 10 Mbps.

    And that’s where the trouble lies.

    “At these speeds there is a clear divide between rural and urban Canada. In 2017, only 37 per cent of rural households had access to 50/10 Mbps, compared with 97 per cent of urban homes,” the government acknowledges, and has committed to bringing those speeds to 100 per cent of Canadian households by 2030.

    A SWIFT Solution

    Currently many local hopes are pinned on SWIFT. The website of the Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology consortium says it’s committed to improving access to high-speed internet services across Southwestern Ontario and “enabling greater digital equality between rural and urban populations” by subsidizing “the construction of open-access high-speed networks to encourage service providers to expand broadband infrastructure in underserved rural areas.” Initiated in 2013 by the Western Ontario Wardens’ Caucus, its services are delivered in partnership with member municipalities and the federal and provincial governments.

    SWIFT is currently overseeing a $209 million “Southwestern Ontario broadband expansion plan” that it says will connect 22 per cent of the region’s underserved households over the next three years. The governments of Ontario and Canada have committed up to $63.7 million each to support SWIFT. The project also draws on funding from municipal partners and private sector investors.

    So far the bulk of SWIFT’s investments have been around Kitchener and Sarnia, says Sonya Pritchard, chief administrative officer for Dufferin County, but both Dufferin and Caledon have been prioritized in the latest round of projects – for which SWIFT issued requests for proposals in June. As this magazine went to press, the announcement of the successful proposals, expected since July, was said to be imminent.

    For Mulmur mayor Janet Horner the announcement can’t come soon enough. “For people living in Mulmur internet access has been a perennial problem,” she says. “But the pandemic is amplifying that because so many more people are living here now in their weekend homes and demand has intensified. I’m especially concerned about schoolkids who are reliant on the internet for home schooling.”

    Horner, who lives on Mulmur’s 10 Sideroad, describes her own family’s internet service as “terrible.” During the pandemic she has had to find an office in the closed municipal office to chair online council meetings. She doesn’t know if her farm will make the cut, but the pending project does aim to bring service to areas of Dufferin with the most difficult terrain, which Mulmur, with its steep hills and valleys, amply represents.

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  • Assuming the latest Dufferin project is approved, it will bring new funding of over $4 million including a contribution of $1.3 million from the county’s broadband reserve. Along with four previous SWIFT-funded projects, the total investment in the county’s rural broadband to date is about $10.37 million to make fibre available to 1,640 premises.

    In Caledon, even as the final touches are being put on a 35-kilometre, $1.4 million installation by Vianet along the Caledon Trailway that will provide “the backbone for future high-speed expansion in the town,” residents are also waiting for the SWIFT announcement that will put $5 million into the town’s internet infrastructure. That figure includes a municipal investment of $600,000 raised through the town’s broadband levy. (Introduced to the Caledon tax bill in 2016, the levy raises about $300,000 a year, or an average of about $11 per household, toward improving broadband service in the town.)

    Waiting for SWIFT 2.0

    As substantial as the investment numbers seem, they represent a “toe in the water” in relation to overall needs, says Horner. And Pritchard warns, “The SWIFT criteria mean that some areas get bypassed.” Ultimately, Pritchard adds, billions of investment dollars are needed and SWIFT gets a small fraction of that. “Hopefully there will be a SWIFT 2.0 and more money will be invested,” she says. In Mono, John Creelman hopes any such future SWIFT investments will include more cost-effective high-speed wireless as well as fibre-based options.

    Like his political colleagues in Dufferin, Caledon mayor Thompson describes SWIFT’s investments as significant and welcome, but far from sufficient. “The feds and the province have never taken this initiative seriously,” he charges. “But maybe the Covid crisis will force their hands? Because we now have a crisis around people accessing basic public services and employment from their homes.” He continues to urge Caledon citizens to sign the petition on the town website calling for federal and provincial governments to declare broadband an essential service.

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  • Meanwhile, frustrated citizens like Sabine Rohner-Tensee and Shannon Ellis are increasingly convinced the root of the problem isn’t lack of infrastructure, bandwidth or any other technological constraint. On the phone from her home in Mono, Rohner-Tensee describes it as a crisis of economic unfairness in which Canada’s internet oligarchs – the small handful of people who control Canada’s highly uncompetitive cartel of internet giants – are deliberately gouging rural customers in what she sees as outrageous discrimination that deprives rural workers of economic equality of opportunity, and their children of educational equity.

    Once the pandemic subsides and the kids are back at school full-time, some of the current emotional and technological overload issues may subside. The real estate market may settle down, and frazzled parents may be able to reclaim their workspaces, their time and some of their bandwidth – that is, until the next time.

    What isn’t likely to subside is the momentum for working from home or the ongoing struggle for reliable, affordable, rural high-speed service.

    In the meantime, many exasperated country folks have resorted to putting their faith in the heavens – where Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite is slowly orbiting the planet, with the promise of providing a global network of high-speed broadband internet by 2021, “unbounded,” as the Starlink website declares, by such earthly considerations as “ground infrastructure limitations.”

    About the Author More by Paul Webster

    Paul Webster writes about environmental issues from homes in Toronto and the Kawarthas.

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