Tech giants need to step up to help close Canada’s digital divide

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the extent to which we all rely on the internet in our day-to-day lives. It’s also highlighted the unfortunate fact that many Canadians in remote northern communities cannot depend on reliable internet for essential tasks such as downloading homework or conducting business meetings by video, or for leisure activities like watching Netflix and keeping up with friends on Facebook.

There is, in short, a deep digital divide between remote communities and the rest of the country.

Historically, network service providers have been the primary stakeholders tasked with ensuring that Canadians are well-connected. However, service providers have so far struggled to provide adequate internet service to remote communities, and it is only getting more difficult with the increasing requirements and complexities of modern web content and applications.

To solve this problem, we argue that other technical stakeholders, including major content providers and application developers like Netflix, YouTube and Facebook, must now lend a hand as well.

Satellite-dependent

To understand why remote communities pose a unique challenge to network service providers, it’s important to understand how these communities get online. Due to their isolation, remote communities depend on satellite to access the internet and other telecommunication services. In most of the country, network links are largely built alongside pre-existing, wired TV and telephone infrastructure.

Satellite-based internet connections have several challenges that limit their performance relative to wired connections.

First, satellite connections have very high latency (the time it takes for an individual data packet to travel between the two end points of a connection) due to the distance at which a satellite orbits the Earth.

Next, due to costs, they have limited bandwidth, restricting the amount of data that can be sent over a given instance.

Lastly, the bandwidth must be shared by all users served by the same satellite. These limitations result in slow website load times and low quality video streams, making for an overall inconsistent and frustrating online experience.

Adding bandwidth

Bridging the digital divide is about providing remote users with the same quality of experience as users elsewhere, despite satellite limitations.

To accomplish this, service providers can try to add more bandwidth to the satellite link, but bandwidth is very costly and limited. They can also use shared web caches so that when users download content it can be saved in the community, allowing future users who request the same content to access it locally instead of via the satellite link.

Additionally, service providers can use specific protocols on the satellite link to better manage latency and data rates.

Why, then, are large content providers and app developers needed to help?

First, there is a trend towards richer web content and more complex applications, such as high-resolution multimedia and advertisements, which demand more and more bandwidth. Second, websites and apps are increasingly adopting deeper levels of encryption to hide not only private user data, but connection-related data as well, making it impossible for service providers to use caches and specific protocols on the satellite link.

Delivering content differently

That all means major content providers and app developers, which dominate internet traffic today, have direct influence over how successfully service providers can manage their networks and improve service to remote users.

If the digital divide is to be successfully bridged, content providers and application developers must deliver content to remote communities differently than they do elsewhere.

They should continue providing rich content to users as long as it’s useful, but make connections “lighter weight” by foregoing unnecessary data that wastes bandwidth. This includes a lot of advertisements, which have questionable relevance to individuals in hard-to-reach locations.

They should also scale back deep encryption that prevents service providers from employing caches and specific protocols. Encryption is still necessary to protect users, but it must not be too deep for service providers to continue relying on the tools they’ve conventionally used to efficiently manage the satellite link.

Special status needed

Some content and application providers may be motivated to adopt this approach out of goodwill — indeed, both YouTube and Facebook have previously adopted lightweight approaches in some developing regions of the world. Nonetheless, we cannot rely on their good will alone since it may conflict with their business interests.

For this reason, it’s time to create a special remote status for communities with unique connectivity challenges. This status could be controlled by the United Nations International Telecommunication Union, and content providers and application developers could be mandated by governments to recognize remote communities and help them accordingly. The UN, after all, declared internet access a human right five years ago.

It’s realistic to expect that large content providers and application developers would be receptive to this proposal. They’ve willingly helped developing regions in the past, and they would only have to change their practices for the most disadvantaged communities — meaning it’s a win-win for both big tech giants and citizens alike.

By Catherine Rosenberg
Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Canada Research Chair in the Future Internet, University of Waterloo

By Andrew Lappalainen
MASc Candidate, Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Waterloo

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