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Internet usage has risen sharply amid coronavirus pandemic, providers say

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Canadian telecom companies say demand for their services has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic and will change business once the lockdown ends.

Rogers Communications Inc. told a House of Commons committee that home internet usage is up more than 50 per cent, voice call usage on its wireless network is up 40 per cent, and 1-800 toll-free calls are up more than 300 per cent.

The Toronto-based company said its customers are making more than 50 million wireless voice calls per day while use of toll-free lines has augmented to access federal support programs.

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Dean Prevost, president of Rogers for Business, said its technicians “are frontline heroes.”

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He said they’ve supported health-care providers by deploying temporary cell sites on wheels, increased capacity to hospitals, run fibre in parking lots and fields and extended fixed wireless to create new COVID-19 testing centres. They have also provided more Wi-Fi for hospitals, seniors homes and homeless shelters.

Rogers said it has helped customers by lifting usage caps for home internet plans, eliminating overage charges, waiving Canadian long-distance calling fees for homes and small businesses, and waiving international roaming fees.

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Prevost said he expects business, including its own, will change dramatically as employees return to work.

“We need to think about how we do that and that will lead to a very different way in which we deploy our forces across the country, a different way in which we use our real estate and as we do that it leads to a different thinking in terms of the tech and capabilities we have,” he said in virtual testimony to the industry committee.

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Liberal committee member Lloyd Longfield said the country is at a “pivot point.”

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“Business is going to change in terms of what they’re going to ask from networks and I wonder about the capacity for us to deal with those questions both from industry and from government regulations.”

Vancouver-based Telus Corp. said it is consistently experiencing four times the network traffic of its busiest day pre-COVID. It plans to reveal a report next week that shows Canada has the fastest wireless speeds in the world.

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“COVID-19 has exposed how important connectivity is to all Canadians,” said vice-president Tony Geheran.

Between March 18 and 31, Telus has moved virtually all its call agents to work from home and facilitated more than 30,000 doctor appointments since launching its virtual visit platform in April.

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Like others, the company has committed not to disconnect customers. It has waived fees for low-income families and students in need.

Geheran said the crisis has accentuated the need for better internet access for rural Canadians, which Telus has invested heavily in. Of $5 billion put into infrastructure over the past six years, $1 billion has gone to connect 40 per cent of all rural Canadian homes to Telus services.

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But he said companies need support from federal and provincial governments. In particular, he said the country needs a new approach to spectrum policy.

Cogeco Communications Inc. said that since the beginning of the crisis, there has been 60 per cent greater use of internet service during the day, a 40 per cent boost in traffic for video on demand, a 20 to 40 per cent growth in video streaming services, including Netflix, and added use of telephony services.

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The company said it has been able to meet the increased demands by having invested to ensure there’s reliable infrastructure. It committed to invest more than $1 billion more over the next four years but said it needs a stable regulatory regime.

“The current crisis has revealed how vital our role is. However, everyday we see Canadians still have needs to be connected or to receive higher internet speeds,” said Leonard Eichel.

Xplornet Communications Inc., the largest rural-focused internet provider, said it has seen a 30 to 40 per cent increase in daytime use and has suspended overage fees to the end of June.

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“The pandemic has demonstrated the critical importance of expanding access to rural broadband,” C.J. Prudham, executive vice-president and general counsel, said in a virtual presentation to MPs.

“Spectrum is the oxygen that our network needs to breathe,” she said, noting that Canada has not consistently pursued a balanced spectrum policy that meets both urban and rural needs.

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—With files from Joan Bryden in Ottawa.