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Rogers promises better rural internet; consumers and advocates want options

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WATCH: Telecom giant Rogers is promising to improve rural internet access as part of the deal to buy Shaw to become an even larger part of Canada's Internet landscape – Mar 22, 2021

When Rogers announced it will try to purchase fellow Canadian telecom giant Shaw, the company also said it will create a $1-billion fund dedicated to improving rural connectivity in Western Canada.

Poor internet access and cell coverage plagues parts of rural Saskatchewan and most of the north. Rhonda Werbicki, who lives in a rural village, said she needs better internet and cell coverage, but she wants options.

“I’d personally like to see at least a couple (of companies) come up here so that there is some competition instead of just one … and them just charging what they want,” she said, speaking to Global News over Zoom.

Read more: Rogers-Shaw merger could mean higher prices for consumers, experts warn 

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Connectivity is more than just a matter of convenience for Werbicki. She lives in Denare Beach. It’s on the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border, about 400 kilometres from Prince Albert.

Werbicki says the drive is even longer to Saskatoon, where she and her family need to go for various appointments.

She has to spend hours on Highway 106, where there’s no cell coverage. That means she can’t call for help when she needs it — like she did last November.

Werbicki described driving home one night when a truck she didn’t recognize caught up with her on the highway and started following her.

Read more: SaskTel discusses costly challenges to delivering internet province wide

She said she slowed down to let it pass but the truck slowed down, too. When she sped up it stuck with her.

“They just kind of continued for a good 30 to 40 minutes. And I was really getting scared,” she said.

“I didn’t know if they maybe wanted to run me off the road, if they wanted to do something with me.”

Werbicki said the truck eventually passed her and left her alone.

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In 2018, Kylie Morin was driving from Sandy Bay, Sask., to Prince Albert when she lost control of her van and crashed into the snow on the side of the highway.

“After I stopped and I checked myself (that) I was physically OK, my mind went to the worst situation where, ‘What if the wrong person stops?’” she said, speaking over Zoom from La Ronge, Sask.

“I remember feeling very vulnerable because there was about a three-hour window before anyone was expecting to hear from me.”

Morin said a nice couple drove by and helped her 10 minutes after the crash.

In the end, both Morin and Werbicki were lucky. But their experiences show how crucial connectivity can be.

Read more: Calgary Economic Development says loss of Shaw head office disappoints but regional office eases pain

A University of Regina professor of business strategy said the pledge to build better internet and cell coverage is more strategic than altruistic.

Bruce Anderson said Rogers likely made the promise to convince the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the federal watchdog, that less competition won’t be so bad for the country.

“I think (the CRTC is) expecting some of the resistance that they’ll get from the regulator will be around rural access (and) rural rates,” he said, speaking over Zoom.

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The deal would reduce the number of major cell and internet providers in the country from four to just three.

Anderson said that typically points to a pattern.

“Less competition is not great for consumers,” he said.

Read more: Canada’s Big 3 telecom firms will get 2 years to cut rates by 25 per cent

“We’re seeing that in grocery stores and retail gas.”

Canadians already pay more for internet and cell service than most consumers in other countries.

Anderson said he believes the regulatory body will likely force Rogers to shed some aspects of its business or allow small companies to use its network in order to foster some market variety.

An advocate for accessible internet opposes the Rogers-Shaw deal, saying Canadians can’t afford to have even larger and more powerful corporations determining who has access — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is the gateway to talking to friends and family safely. It is the way people are booking their COVID vaccines. It’s the way that people are accessing health care services,” said Laura Tribe, speaking over Zoom from Toronto.

Read more: Rogers set to buy Shaw in deal valued at $26 billion

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Tribe, executive director of Open Media, an NGO campaigning for accessible internet, said the federal government must require telecom companies to provide adequate internet to all Canadians, or find other ways to provide access.

If major corporations were going to provide rural connectivity, they would have already done it, she said, adding telecom companies treat people in rural areas like political bargaining chips.

“We need a bigger-picture, full-scale plan and strategy for how to make sure that every single person is connected,” she said, “not just the ones that Rogers or Shaw thinks is maybe in the next most profitable area.”

She also said the Canadian government will be less able to enforce requirements on an even larger telecom corporation.

In a statement, Rogers said: “We know how critical connectivity is to all Canadians and our companies coming together will give us the scale and capabilities to connect rural, remote and Indigenous communities across Western Canada.

“We look forward to working with local communities and governments to jointly create connectivity solutions that meet their needs.”

The federal government must approve the deal before Rogers can purchase Shaw. Anderson said that likely wouldn’t happen until the end of next year.

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