4 Chapter 4: Broadband Connectivity in Rural and Remote Communities: A Persistent Challenge Heightened by COVID-19 and the Move to Remote Learning for K–12 Students

Michael Maciach

Over the last few decades, the internet has become increasingly crucial to the everyday lives of a large portion of the world’s population. People rely on the internet for essential news and information, banking, communication, healthcare, employment, education, and access to government services. For many individuals, the internet has become a necessity for active participation in society and also a lifeline for access to the world outside of their homes (OpenMedia, 2020). The internet has made the world a smaller place and provides people all over the world with exposure to other individuals, locations, ideas, and opportunities they might never have encountered otherwise. This increased global access has come with both advantages and challenges. Some people, especially those with reliable internet service at home, have a greater number and scope of choices. But for those without access to a reliable internet connection, or without any internet access at all, opportunities for participating in society may be limited (Standing Committee on Industry, Science, and Technology, 2018).

COVID-19 has increased reliance on the internet, as people struggle to stay connected and meet their personal needs (OpenMedia, 2020). In dealing with the challenges brought on by the pandemic, the internet has become the main tool for social and economic interactions (Beaunoyer et al., 2020). Despite advances in technology and the development of infrastructure necessary to take broadband internet service almost anywhere in the world, a large portion of the global population in remote or rural areas still continues to have limited or no internet access. Additionally, even in areas where there is internet access, it may be unaffordable or there may be insufficient bandwidth to complete the most basic of internet activities.

This chapter describes broadband connectivity challenges in remote, rural, and Indigenous communities in Canada while exploring how COVID-19 has impacted the situation. I focus on how lack of broadband internet services has affected K–12 students and their access to education during the move to remote learning. Looking at this ethical issue from multiple perspectives, I examine whether governments should be responsible for providing broadband home internet access for all K–12 learners.

Full Disclosure and Historical Context

How Has the Situation Evolved Over Time?

Internet access across the world grew significantly in the early part of the 21st century with worldwide internet availability and usage increasing from just 18% of the global population in 2006 to 35% in 2011 (Li & Ranieri, 2013). Research conducted in 2015 indicated that teenagers in the United States went online regularly for a variety of purposes, including gaming, and that a significant majority owned smartphones (Lenhart, 2015). Inequitable broadband access across the world might negatively affect both education and social progress (Li & Ranieri, 2013). For K–12 students, access to online education involves more than just having a computer and an internet connection; it requires a reliable connection with sufficient bandwidth (Dolan, 2015). The ongoing and current challenge people in many rural and remote communities face is gaining access to broadband infrastructure that delivers the robust internet capabilities they need to engage in activities necessary for educational, economic, and communication purposes. For these communities, lack of necessary broadband infrastructure makes using the internet for many tasks a challenge.

In 2018, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) identified broadband internet as critical, using speeds of 50 Mbps for downloading and 10 Mbps for uploading as the basic measure of adequate home internet capacity across Canada (Standing Committee on Industry, Science, and Technology, 2018). In 2020, 87.4% of Canadian households had access to an internet connection with that minimum speed; in rural Alberta, that number decreased to only 37% (Cybera, n.d.). Moreover, in Alberta, the percentage of households in First Nations communities that had access to a 50/10 Mbps internet connection speed was only 19.6% (CRTC, 2020). Although broadband internet services have expanded greatly in urban centres, rural, remote, and Indigenous communities have struggled to keep up. Broadband infrastructure challenges in remote and rural communities persist today despite the fact that over 3 years ago, a House of Commons publication indicated that high-speed internet is vital for the economic and social development of communities (Standing Committee on Industry, Science, and Technology, 2018).

The Government of Alberta (n.d.) considers the rural internet market in Alberta to be competitive, with service provided by a variety of internet service providers. However, although Canada has over 500 internet service providers, the broadband market is controlled by three large telecommunication companies, creating very little competition and limited incentive to invest in infrastructure that is not considered profitable (McNally, 2021). In Alberta, the SuperNet, a broadband fiber optic cable, provides high-speed internet services to 429 communities, including remote and rural locations, First Nations communities, and Métis settlements. Despite running near many private homes, the SuperNet cable extends only to schools, health centres, libraries, and government offices, unless an internet service provider has extended its reach (Loewen, 2021). In many cases, internet service providers have not been motivated to extend the SuperNet to homes in rural and remote communities for numerous reasons, including financial and infrastructure challenges.

In Canada, there have been numerous internet funding initiatives such as the Universal Broadband Fund, CRTC Broadband Fund, Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program, and the Connect to Innovate fund, to name a few. These initiatives, despite representing billions of dollars in capital, have achieved very little in terms of delivering robust broadband internet to homes in remote and rural communities (McNally, 2021). Indeed, the internet reaches almost every single area of the world, while in Canada and many other countries, a divide still exists based on physical geography and lack of available infrastructure with the absence of a viable plan for moving forward to solve the persistent broadband connectivity challenge within a reasonable amount of time (Lembani et al., 2019).

What Is the Current Situation for K12 Students?

In 2020, the pandemic drew awareness to the continued lack of internet access in many parts of the world. Particular attention was paid to the lack of internet access in northern rural and remote areas of Canada. The absence of high-speed internet services has left many vulnerable individuals even more vulnerable, particularly students learning online (OpenMedia, 2020). This lack of access currently impacts Indigenous communities more significantly than others because they are more likely to be in remote and rural areas with low population bases. In Indigenous communities that do have quality internet services, home broadband internet is unaffordable or inaccessible to many. As a result of the pandemic, many more individuals in remote Indigenous communities are relying on the internet for access to basic services, to stay in touch with family and friends, and to continue to receive an education. When referring to broadband internet services in Indigenous communities, Ula Shirt, communication specialist for the Piikani Youth and Education Foundation, stated, “It’s almost a basic human right like water because it underlies everything” (McMahon et al., 2021).

When schools and community libraries were open, those who did not have high-speed internet access at home could access it in those public spaces. Pandemic safety measures meant individuals could no longer use public broadband connections (OpenMedia, 2020). Many K–12 schools in remote, rural, and Indigenous communities closed and moved to distance learning, making the internet their main education delivery tool. In communities where students returned to in-person schooling, some students continued to learn from home for a variety of reasons, such as being immunocompromised or living in a multigenerational family home with an older member vulnerable to COVID-19. For students who did return to in-person learning, regular COVID-19 cases and outbreaks routinely necessitated a return to online learning for extended periods of time. In rural and Indigenous communities where broadband internet is not accessible for all residents, students who are required to receive their education online are unable to participate meaningfully because they do not have the broadband capabilities for synchronous online learning classes or because they cannot access internet-based learning at all. Consequently, many students in homes without reliable internet access instead received their schooling through worksheet packages delivered to homes or picked up at the school. This educational format offers little interactivity between the student and teacher and does not provide the same opportunity for an engaging and quality educational experience that may be accessed by those who do have a broadband connection. A purely paper-based educational experience removes the social aspect of learning, leaving students to learn in isolation with few opportunities to communicate and collaborate with their peers. Consequently, many students can become disconnected from their schooling, falling further behind and in many cases dropping out of the educational system all together.

Many students begin online learning with the intention of being actively involved in the learning experience, and many teachers attempt to make the learning experience as engaging and effective as possible for the students and themselves. Frustration can quickly develop as students without high-speed internet realize that they are unable to access parts of the learning experience and teachers realize that their efforts to create quality online learning experiences are futile. When discussing his granddaughter’s attempts to access online learning with a weak internet connection, a grandparent from the Enoch Cree First Nation stated, “Kids are falling behind and can’t stay caught up with their schooling, which will have an impact on community later on” (McMahon et al., 2021). The equity gap between those who have access to broadband internet and those who do not becomes abundantly clear when physical schools must close and learning moves online.

Ethical Perspectives

According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN General Assembly, 1989), “parties recognize the right of the child to education and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity” (Article 28). Since thousands of Canadian students must now receive access to their education at home via the internet, and equal opportunity for all to receive a quality education is recognized globally as a fundamental right, it seems logical that all students learning at home should have quality internet access. In addition, since both the government of Canada and the CRTC have identified broadband internet access as an essential service, this raises the question: Should the government be required to provide quality and affordable broadband home internet access for all K–12 students?

Looking Through a Consequentialist Lens

From a consequentialist perspective, the soundest ethical decisions are based on what is best for the largest number of individuals with the fewest number of negative consequences or harmful outcomes for the majority. As Farrow (2016) suggested, a consequentialist ethical perspective considers that what is beneficial to oneself or individuals is not as important as how decisions may impact the collective. Expanding broadband infrastructure to all households so that all individuals have reliable and affordable access, including K–12 students, could be considered the best ethical decision because it brings positive consequences for the majority of people. A recent study indicated that investments in high-speed internet for rural and Indigenous communities in Alberta would have a significant positive economic impact along with numerous other community benefits (Valleau, 2019). The positive consequences would have the greatest benefit for all in terms of both quality of life and economic prosperity, with limited negative consequences for any one individual. According to Mignone and Henry (2009), “ICT [information and communications technology] investments in remote communities dramatically increase their bridging and linking opportunities, with potentially major returns in business opportunities, education, and health” (p. 136). Broadband internet access can ensure that individuals in Indigenous communities have opportunities to participate and connect more fully with others in online communities, allow for better access to services and opportunities outside of the community, and open up career training and work opportunities for community members. “From a broader perspective of community return, the potential of ICT with high capabilities can directly enhance the development of communities’ business opportunities, as well as of their educational and health systems among others,” noted Mignone and Henry (2009, p. 136).

When students are learning from home during the pandemic and beyond, broadband access for educational delivery purposes ensures they have the opportunity to access an education that can allow them to complete their K–12 schooling. This can also support them to continue to postsecondary studies or workforce training and contribute back to the economy and overall economic prosperity of their community, province, and country. Not providing broadband internet to those who require it could lead to students leaving the education system before graduating, not being able to pursue further education, or lacking diverse options in joining the workforce. Not having access to broadband internet limits an individual’s access to information and a variety of services, often resulting in what could be considered digital exclusion, leading to reduced educational opportunities and possibly negative health outcomes (Beaunoyer et al., 2020).

Looking Through a Deontological Lens

From a deontological view, the ethically correct course of action is always that which is driven by a sense of moral obligation, responsibility, duty, and what is considered acceptable according to principles and values (Farrow, 2016). The government is responsible for the well-being of its citizens and is morally obligated and duty bound to provide a quality and equitable education for all students. Therefore, from a deontological ethical perspective, the government should provide broadband internet access to all homes, especially when receiving a quality education hinges upon having a robust and reliable internet connection.

Despite multiple challenges that might make it difficult for all individuals to access an equitable education, education is a foundational human right necessary for both dignity and inclusion in society (Cronin, 2019). In the case of Indigenous individuals, who have historically been and are currently being marginalized, a deontological perspective acknowledges their right as students to a quality education that is equal to the education received by others in non-Indigenous communities. Additionally, a deontological lens identifies the government’s moral obligation and duty to provide equal educational opportunities for all. Where lack of broadband internet access acts as a barrier to educational opportunities for Indigenous students in remote and rural communities, the government should provide access for all K–12 students because it has both an obligation and a moral responsibility to do so.

Risks and Challenges

There are numerous risks and challenges for users that accompany access to the internet or increased usage of the internet for a wider variety of purposes. It is important to reiterate that in the case of limited broadband internet access in remote and rural communities, it is not always the case that there is no internet access in these communities. The issue may be that the current access is not of sufficient speed or quality for many purposes and not affordable for all. With improved access to quality broadband internet services, one concern is that more individuals will be using the internet and for an increased number and variety of purposes, potentially increasing overall exposure to the risks and challenges that accompany internet usage. For example, in many communities with limited broadband access, K–12 students are currently able to use the internet via cell phones with limited data plans and other devices that offer varying degrees of usage. As broadband access becomes more prevalent, K–12 students will be able to better use the internet for educational purposes as well as a variety of other activities that require increased bandwidth and higher internet speeds, making them more exposed and vulnerable to the following risks and challenges.

Privacy, Data Security, and Informed Consent

Access to an internet connection always comes with the risk that others might gain access to a user’s private information and use it for illegal purposes or share it with others. In some instances, the very applications and learning management systems that school divisions approve for use or that teachers sometimes use without specific permission from the division often track and surveil students through their everyday educational activities. Survey data indicates that very few educators actually understand the impact that their technology tool choices have on their students’ privacy (Stewart, 2020). The pandemic has increased the use of data-driven technology by academic institutions, which has placed students in the vulnerable position of having their user data compromised and shared without their explicit consent. Often, a user agreement is difficult for a layperson to understand, let alone a student who is very unlikely to have ever read or understood one (Stewart, 2020).

Frequently, user data is used by large educational technology companies for marketing purposes and to direct students towards specific advertising and products under the guise of leveraging it to improve software and services (Regan & Jesse, 2018). Increased usage of technology tools and social media platforms that have become so engrained in everyday lives can lead to extensive use of these tools without ever questioning how they might be monopolizing and monetizing users’ private data. These same tools that teachers and students use for engagement, communication, and connection rely on tracking locations, using personal data, and sharing information to generate a profit and thus continue to exist (Cronin, 2019). With increased use of the internet for socialization and communication, online anonymity becomes a challenge, as information thought to be incognito can easily be traced back to a specific individual and used without their knowledge (Regan & Jesse, 2018). With more students using the internet for schooling at home, there is a greater potential for privacy breaches and use of user data without parents’ or children’s knowledge or consent.

Educational Integrity by Avoiding Harm and Risk

Risk in the form of specific harm to individuals and educational integrity can be another challenge with increased access and use of the internet. Just as access to the internet opens up a world of opportunities, choices, and information, it also increases potential exposure to illegal activity, inappropriate content, and addictive behaviours, such as excessive gaming. As access increases, students who are not appropriately monitored or individuals who may not have the skills to make wise choices could be left vulnerable. Increased access to social media may leave individuals more susceptible to harmful behaviours such as cyberbullying and could also expose them to inaccurate information or “fake news” for which they may lack the ability to discern between fact and fiction. Inaccurate information promoted on various internet platforms can have negative consequences, especially during a pandemic and in situations where individuals are already vulnerable and marginalized and lack digital literacy skills (Beaunoyer et al., 2020).

Academic integrity may also be compromised as increased internet access also increases access to information and ideas that individuals may choose to use in place of their own original ideas and thoughts. These actions can compromise a student’s learning and education while also leading to countermeasures that are equally as harmful, such as proctoring tools that further violate student privacy (see Luinstra’s chapter). Additionally, information gathered for assessment purposes might be used to customize or stream student learning, which can be harmful if it is done without student knowledge or consent and if it limits a student’s potential (Regan & Jesse, 2018) or access to opportunities. Kearns and Whitney (2019) suggested that “existing evidence on the negative effects of internet use can be considered in three broad categories: lower social connections; negative mental health effects; and lower levels of physical activity” (p. 2). Increased access to the internet can be harmful in a number of ways if the risks are not mitigated and if individuals do not have the knowledge they need to make wise decisions and choices online.

Respect for Participant Autonomy and Independence

Just as remaining anonymity online is next to impossible, increased access and usage of the internet can also impact personal autonomy. Although an individual might think they are making choices for themselves while choosing how to use the internet, which sites to browse, and which applications to use, the truth is that various algorithms may be making these choices without the individual ever knowing. User data is often used for targeted advertising, to make predictions about user behaviour, and for directing an individual’s online choices in a certain way. Users are likely unaware that this is happening because they only see the choices that are offered to them and can remain in the dark as to how their choices are being limited or manipulated (Regan & Jesse, 2018). There are times when artificial intelligence tools are used to stream users towards this content based on their browsing history or other forms of user information that people might think is private. This information could potentially be used in discriminatory ways that further perpetuate inequality.

Another concern is that once an individual’s data is in the hands of another party, it becomes very difficult to exert control over what the data is and is not used for and very challenging to claim ownership over it (Regan & Jesse, 2018). Increased access to the internet may give an individual expanded opportunities or choices but at that same time might limit the online choices they are exposed to and reduce the amount of control they are able to exert over their own data, giving them a false sense of autonomy.

Mitigating the Risks and Challenges

Much can be done to reduce the risks related to privacy and data security and to decrease the vulnerability of adult and student users. For example, a strong digital literacy curriculum in schools and community support for learning digital skills can give individuals the skills they need to better understand the risks, protect their information and data, and make wise choices online (Beaunoyer et al., 2020). In addition, institutions can adjust their policies, choose education technology tools more wisely, educate staff on privacy and data security, and use a number of strategies to limit the risks for students. Stewart (2020) mentioned that “it’s time to educate our campus communities about the data implications of tools that — in an extraordinary short window of time — have come to effectively constitute a huge proportion of teaching environments” (p. 4).

When it comes to educational integrity, harm, and risk, a strong digital citizenship focus in K–12 education and educational campaigns against fraudulent and illegal online activity for students and adults would give individuals a better understanding of acceptable and unacceptable online behaviour (Beaunoyer et al., 2020). Additionally, helping students develop the ability to discern between fact and fiction online combined with a strong foundation for identifying and preventing the negative health impacts of maladaptive online behaviour would reduce the negative health and psychological impacts that internet use can induce. There is a positive correlation between internet access and good health as access to the internet can strengthen social connections and support (Kearns & Whitney, 2019). Further, academic institutions can make academic integrity a priority topic beginning in elementary school and re-evaluate their assessment practices and procedures to ensure that they take a balanced approach to student evaluation and prevent students from participating in potentially harmful assessment practices.

Finally, student online autonomy will increase if students more fully understand how they can be manipulated online and if they are taught the skills they need to reclaim their online power. More clarity around who owns student and user data, better identification of the parties responsible for protecting student data, and effective government policies and strategies related to privacy, transparency, and data use will increase student autonomy and independence (Regan & Jesse, 2018). Further, assistive tools built into the internet and technology can give students and users with a variety of learning challenges a new level of autonomy and independence that might not have existed had the internet and the corresponding technology not been available to them.

Where Do We Go From Here?

In light of the information and data presented in this chapter, it has become clear that delivering broadband internet access to all rural, remote, and Indigenous communities is a very complex matter. Clearly it is not just a matter of funding and determination, as billions of dollars have been made available for this effort and numerous individuals, groups, and organizations have worked tirelessly to shrink the digital divide in internet access. In some locations the divide has become smaller but in other areas it has grown. Some communities have been able to find solutions on their own through various partnerships and creative thinking while other communities have fallen further behind. A one-size-fits-all solution will not expand broadband internet to every community. Even if government is responsible, there will need to be a mix of public and private support, involvement from all stakeholders, and creative solutions to address infrastructure, sustainability, and funding challenges. This leads to several important questions:

  • How can a greater sense of urgency be created for all stakeholders in relation to broadband internet challenges in rural, remote, and indigenous communities?
  • How can more collaborative approaches be fostered that involve all levels of government, industry, educational institutions, large telecommunication companies, and communities?
  • How can stakeholders and communities be encouraged to develop creative and innovative solutions to the challenge while building their own technological capacity?
  • How can large telecommunication companies and internet service providers be encouraged to see the value in investing in broadband internet expansion without expectation of large profits?

Conclusion

Access to broadband internet is fundamental for everyday communication purposes and full participation in economic and educational aspects of society. During the COVID‑19 pandemic, the need for both reliable and affordable internet services in all homes has become even more evident. Many communities and homes throughout the world continue to have limited or in some cases no access to broadband internet. Lack of internet access is particularly evident in rural, remote, and Indigenous communities throughout Canada. In Alberta, the number of homes receiving high-speed internet in urban areas has increased while many homes outside of large urban areas continue to struggle with limited high-speed internet access. Despite numerous large-scale funding efforts, the gap between those who have quality home internet service and those who do not still exists. Indigenous communities are more impacted by a lack of broadband services because they are more likely to be located in remote and less populated areas of the country. COVID‑19 closed many schools across the country and forced thousands of students to continue their learning online. Students who do not have high-speed internet access are at a disadvantage for access and participation in online learning. Consequently, many of these students access education in less engaging and less interactive formats. Students in rural and remote communities are more at risk of leaving the education system and appear to be disengaging from their schooling at alarming rates (McMahon et al., 2021).

Since education is a right and quality education during COVID‑19 requires high-speed internet access, the ethical question to address is whether the government should be responsible for providing home broadband access for all K–12 students, which is particularly relevant not only in the current context but also in regards to future school closures. From both the consequentialist and deontological ethical perspectives, the government should be responsible for providing broadband internet access for all K–12 students. Increased internet access does come with many risks and challenges related to privacy, data security, informed consent, educational integrity, harm, autonomy, and independence. However, these risks and challenges can be mitigated through education, awareness, policy changes, and strategic planning. Further, the risks inherent in not expanding broadband internet to all communities are immense. Communities without broadband access will continue to fall behind, which will heavily impact educational outcomes for students and could have economic, communication, and health impacts for everyone else. Although providing high-speed infrastructure and access for K–12 learners may be a government responsibility, all stakeholders will need to be fully engaged in collaboratively working together to find creative solutions to this persistent challenge in order to provide the broadband infrastructure and services needed to benefit all.

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