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The value of connection: work-from-home reflections on World Telecommunication and Internet Society day

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Sunday, May 17, 2020

Guest blog by Fenwick McKelvey, Associate Professor in Information and Communication Technology Policy in the Department of Communication Studies at Concordia University.

Here in Montreal, the pandemic coincided with an unusually cold spring, so my family has been spending our days indoors, connected to the outside world through the Internet. As someone who studies how we measure the Internet, I have been thinking about the value of my connection. On World Telecommunications Day, I would like to share my reflections on the relationship between how we measure the Internet and how we judge its effectiveness during a pandemic.

Like the weather, there are lots of ways to describe Internet. It. Instead of temperature, UV index or that feeling of a summer day, we have speed, latency and those many human factors that decide a good Internet experience.

The Internet has been a bit of blue sky thinking in a time of physical distancing. As the threat of contagion promises to massively disrupt daily life, the Internet has been at the centre of efforts to imagine how society could function at a distance. There is good reason to think that the Internet might lessen the virus’ impact. Preliminary research from the United States suggests high-quality Internet allows people to respect physical distancing better.

In our collective imagination, communication at the speed of light can overcome any physical distance. Advertisements have been using this myth to sell the value of the Internet in this way for decades. MCI’s iconic No More There ad from 1994 featured 11-year-old Anna Paquin trying to introduce the idea of a global network.

Standing in a Utah salt flat where the sky is indistinguishable from the earth, Anna declares, “its speed limits... will be the speed of light.” 

Not much has changed as our evaluation of the Internet’s success in the pandemic is often based on speed. Ookla, one of the largest commercial aggregators of broadband data, has only dropped by 3% as of March 2, 2020.

Maybe it is the grey weather, but I am tired of measuring the Internet only through speed. The emphasis on speed can obscure other important measures like latency (the time for a message to be sent from two points on the Internet), which might be the real culprit behind our Zoom meetings cutting out. Canada’s network operators, for example, have been trying to better connect their networks, lowering the distances between users on the Canadian Internet and thereby latency.

COVID-19’s impact cannot be told by these technical measures alone. Most Canadians probably do not think of their Internet connection in numerical terms. When asked in 2013, three-quarters of Canadians did not know their Internet speed despite paying for plans based on specific rates. Internet measurement standards often distinguish between “quality of service” and the more subjective “quality of experience,” meaning how people evaluate technical performance.

So where are the stories about our experience being connected or disconnected today? Our increased dependence on the Internet, now, further excludes those with poor connections or those who lack the technical facility to understand problems with their service. How can the digitally disconnected tell their own experiences of isolation? Whose voices are missing? Certainly, they cannot upload a video or post a message. Instead, we have scattered personal stories of people connecting to the Internet in a Tim Horton’s parking lot or struggling to keep up in class without a stable connection.

I am not the only one to have seasonal reflections on the Internet. Four years ago, then-CRTC Chairman JP Blais reflected on the importance of the Internet to Canadians while doing a bit of gardening, perhaps a newfound hobby for many during the pandemic. Blais, however, used his musing to start the day at our national regulator’s hearings on whether to count broadband as a basic service. He began:

"Like many things Canadian, my reflections start with the weather. It was a particularly warm and sunny spring weekend in the Ottawa region over the past two days... I’d like to share with you those reflections over the last week and set the course for our conversation over the next two weeks of hearing.... Today, in Canada, broadband is vital. Dictionaries define “vital” as being essential to life, to the existence of a thing, to the matter at hand, and to success more broadly."

Many springs have come and gone since Blais shifted the hearing from debating whether the Internet is vital to ensuring everyone has access to a vital Internet. The Commission eventually defined a standard for high-quality Internet that combined all these ways to measure the Internet above. It set a minimum download (50Mbps) and upload (10Mbps) speed as well as low latency (50ms). It also decided that data caps were not conducive to a high-quality Internet experience. Evidence presented at the hearing suggested that data caps had a chilling effect on Internet usage and caused users anxiety.

The CRTC set these standards because they ensured a high-quality Internet, a connection necessary to thrive online. This fact lead Blais to offer a second reflection:

"Individual Canadians came to testify that they did not choose to face life in poverty or to be challenged by physical or mental disabilities. Yet, governments at all levels have chosen to ask these citizens to seek government services through digital platforms."

Today, Canadians without Internet connections face long hold times when applying for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). Even if we assume the Internet provides a better means for citizens to access services, the government, as well as educators like myself, cannot trust that everyone has access to the Internet despite its four-year-old status as a vital Canadian service. Instead, these clear guidelines for a high-quality Internet seem as contentious as they were four years ago.

If there is a bright spot on the horizon, it is that our society’s fractures are now harder to ignore. As we heal, we must rethink why so many of us remain hopeful about the Internet. We have always seen ourselves as a nation built on communication technology. Now, more than ever it is time to ensure that all Canadians, if they so choose, can access and afford the highest quality Internet.

Thanks to Jean-François Mezei for his help finding Blais’s speech.

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