Rationing internet a pandemic side-effect

Streaming a dream in rural Alberta as download speeds slow to a trickle

The pandemic has created an unwelcome blast from the past for rural Albertans dealing with internet speeds not seen since the days of dial-up.

“I can see downtown Calgary from my window right now, and I feel like I’m in the sticks,” said Shelagh Blatz, who lives near Priddis.

“I’m so close to Calgary, but I might as well be five hours north of Valleyview.”

With Blatz, her husband, and their four children social distancing at home, their “smart hub” just can’t keep up with the increased demand.

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“It’s very overloaded,” said Blatz. “The more people who get it in the neighbourhood, the slower it gets. So with everyone in the neighbourhood home, it’s always dropping or it’s incredibly slow.”

So slow that Blatz’s husband has had to block all of the other devices in the house from accessing the internet in order to download a single email from work.

“We’ll all take turns doing our work — we have to kind of ration it out,” Blatz said April 9. “It’s such a necessity, from business to work to school.”

The night before, she took part in a 4-H meeting via the Zoom video-conferencing app, praying the whole time that the connection would hold.

“We’ve been doing a lot of those with 4-H over the last week, and I would say 80 per cent of the people have to turn off their video so it’s not lagging,” she said.

“It’s for sure a widespread issue. It’s so bogged down with everyone at home.”

It’s the same story in Sarah Hissett’s home near Wainwright.

“I have the Telus internet hub, which is trying at the best of times, let alone when you have everyone working from home and not allowed to go out,” said Hissett. “But we have found now, during this lockdown, that peak times — like when everyone is home in the evening Netflixing — are a tough time for internet.”

Like the Blatz family, Hissett and her husband are juggling work, volunteer duties, and homeschool with this slow internet — and rationing it to make it work.

“I’m lucky that I have a kindergartener and a fourth grader,” said Hissett. “The kindergarten isn’t too intense with internet use, but when the fourth grader has her conferences, we make sure that no one else is doing anything on the internet.”

But the internet has also become a lifeline to friends and family for the Hissetts during this period of social distancing, and the slow speeds have been a barrier to that as well.

“Last Tuesday, when Telus had its internet outage, it was right when (my daughter) was supposed to be doing her weekly conference call with all of her friends, so she missed out on the social aspect for the week just because the internet wasn’t working,” said Hissett.

Last weekend, the couple hosted a virtual games night over Zoom — or at least they tried to.

“The entire internet in the house crashed,” she said. “We both hot-spotted off of our phones in order to play. We decided we weren’t even going to touch the house internet because it’s so unstable.”

Hissett also sits on the local health foundation board, and their last monthly meeting was held over Zoom, with mixed results.

“It’s always scary when people are freezing and you’re missing stuff, and then you get the warning — ‘Your internet connection is unstable,’” she said.

“A lot of our board members are rural. There’s only a couple who live in town. One woman, her internet booted her, and she couldn’t get back in through the internet. She had to call in.”

The pandemic has underscored just how important reliable high-speed internet is in today’s world, she said.

“Internet has become so vital in our day to day, and rural Alberta is getting the bum rush,” said Hissett.

“We’re only 15 minutes outside of town. I can’t imagine how it is for people who are actually rural.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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