COLUMN: Maybe decent internet should be a human right

Residents of Chilliwack neighbourhood decry terrible connectivity amid a global pandemic

How is working from home going for you?

While millions have lost their jobs due to COVID-19, many more are working harder than ever, be they doctors, nurses, first responders, grocery store workers, delivery drivers.

Then there is that large segment of the population who are still working, who need to work, and whose businesses need them, but they are doing so from home.

And beyond dealing with spouses and pets and workplace nooks and crannies, a key component to almost all work done from home is access to the internet, something most of us take for granted living in Chilliwack, a medium-sized city in a prosperous First World nation.

As managing partner of local craft beer maker Old Yale Brewing, Zach VanLeeuwen lives and works in Chilliwack. Specifically, he lives in Ryder Lake, a rural neighbourhood that is home to about 1,500 people and is, yes, within the city limits. Yet VanLeeuwen and his neighbours are living a First World life suffering from a Third World problem – a problem many in Third World countries don’t even face.

Their internet, to be blunt, sucks.

“Running a business from home is always a difficult task, but without proper connectivity it’s become nearly impossible,” VanLeeuwen told me.

He said starting in March he went 40 days without his internet speed getting above one megabyte per second.

“It wasn’t enough to do any kind of conference calls (audio or video). Combine that with a lack of cell service on our property, and I was having to make multiple trips a day down to town with my laptop to just attend meetings and answer calls.”

VanLeeuwen says he pays upwards of $150 a month to access internet “less than 20 per cent of the speed that the Government of Canada declared a fundamental human right (50mb/second).”

A 2016 declaration by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) did say that broadband services are considered a basic service for all Canadians. Apparently, we should all have good access.

• RELATED: 80% of Canadians can’t keep off the internet for 8 straight hours: survey

Others have gone further. A British researcher published a study in the Journal of Applied Philosophy that said because political engagement is increasingly done online, free expression, freedom of information and freedom of assembly are undermined if some citizens have access to the internet while others do not.

“Internet access is no luxury, but instead a moral human right and everyone should have unmonitored and uncensored access to this global medium – provided free of charge for those unable to afford it,” according to Merten Reglitz, a lecturer in Global Ethics at the University of Birmingham in a November 2019 article about his research.

Reglitz talks about access to proper and free access to the internet in the far reaches of the globe. Here we are talking about simple decent paid access in a decent neighbourhood in Canada.

The situation in Ryder Lake prompted a recent open letter sent to politicians at all levels and the Telus CEO, signed by 411 community members “regarding the dire internet situation.” The letter states that students are struggling to keep up with homeschooling, and those working from home are stymied by the situation.

• READ MORE: Ryder Lake residents struggle with internet access during COVID-19 pandemic

It was created by resident Andy Harrington who is CEO of a charity currently dealing with a food crisis in Rwanda due to COVID-19 lockdowns. He is exasperated by the irony that he is here, in Canada, trying to help with an African crisis while they have better internet access than him.

“My colleagues in Rwanda have been able to Zoom with each other and are amazed that we in Canada are nowhere near their technological sophistication.”

Some might say that those who live in Ryder Lake chose to live there, and if it’s internet access they want, they should move to the valley floor. But Ryder Lake is a neighbourhood in our city, “a little slice of paradise” as VanLeeuwen calls it, yet it’s one with such a crappy lack of connectivity that it’s hard to fathom that people can’t work from home in 2020.

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