Bell Canada is profiteering off rural communities during the COVID-19 pandemic

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The Ontario government has very quickly created an e-learning platform for students, parents and educators, in reaction to the school closures required for the public health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic. This response is necessary in order to prevent learning loss for students while stuck at home, and has pushed the conversation forward around the reality of e-learning for the Ministry of Education.

While this is a strong step forward for teachers and families, several groups have raised valid concerns regarding the equity associated with creating an online system. CUPE recently issued a statement addressing the issue of equitable access to these new resources: "we ... know that the high-speed internet required for e-learning isn't as accessible in low-income, rural, and Indigenous communities," said Laura Walton, president of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU). Teachers unions, including ETFO and the OSSTF, have also expressed concerns with the logistics around acquiring essential access resources for youth to participate, including the hardware (laptops, Chromebooks and tablets etc.) and infrastructure (high-speed internet access). There are worries about the creation of a two-tiered system of those who have and those who have not.

Meanwhile, one principal ( is withholding his name, school and home town name) in northwestern Ontario will be spending his whole weekend printing paper packages for his entire elementary student body (about 170 kids). He knows that these new online resources will not be available to his kids. He has no other choice. He is also going to rack up $600 on his phone bill this month, because that's the only way he can read his email. 

His community of about 700 people has extremely slow internet -- it always has. Bell Canada is the only telecom provider for their town, and they own a well-established monopoly for most of northwestern Ontario. 

"The real problem isn't access to the internet; it's the bandwidth," the principal explains. "The problem isn't the hardware or hooking up to the internet, it's big telecom that runs the infrastructure. No one is addressing the real problem: we have dial up. We can't load a word document."

Rural and remote communities don't have the luxury of high-speed internet at home. Bell Canada never gave it to them, and it would cost millions of dollars in development (and years of labour) to make it happen. What do they have? Mobile devices. So, if you want high-speed internet access, you simply switch to your phone. That's why that town's principal's bill is $600 a month. There's a horrible catch with hot-spotting your internet from your phone 24/7: Bell charges high overage fees for exceeding mobile data limits. 

"We are forced to pay surplus charges on the overages. We are asking people to stay online all day, but then we are forcing them to pay overage fees. Homes in our community have five to 10 people, and they can't be held hostage to the overage fees. Their bills are now four times higher than normal, and they have been given no other option. People need high-speed access to use these devices. The inequality is in the quality."

Bell recently issued a few public statements regarding overage charges:

On March 14: "To assist Canadians working from home because of COVID-19, we will be waiving extra usage fees for all residential Internet customers until April 30th."

March 19: "We are aware that many of our Turbo Hub, Turbo Stick and MiFi customers would like us to provide them with unlimited data. We would love to do that as well and we are sorry that we cannot ... Providing unlimited usage to all Turbo Hub, Turbo Stick and MiFi customers would put wireless network performance at risk during a critical time for Canadians."

The solution is simple: wave the overage charges on mobile data plans. Data limits are an arbitrary concept, enforced by big telecom for profit. In the U.S. this month, T-Mobile has offered 60 days of unlimited data to their mobile customers to help with the quarantine.

The concept of data limits is fiscally motivated. By forcing rural and remote families to pay four times their normal phone bill, Bell Canada is profiteering off this crisis. 

Bell needs to be held accountable for its actions. It needs to cancel the cost of the overages to mobile devices. If Bell stands up and forgives these costs so that kids can access the same e-learning websites just like every other student in Ontario, then maybe that principal won't have to spend his whole weekend printing paper like it's 1995. Bell needs to ensure that children in rural and remote Ontario can access the same e-learning opportunities as every other student in the province.

Vivian Lee is a doctoral student at OISE, specializing in digital citizenship education policy. She is also the provincial director for a youth charity that provides educational resources and employment for students. 

Image: DarkWorkX/Pixabay

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