Digital Divide

Last week my wife Shelley and I headed over to Nanaimo and to Gold River on Vancouver Island for a few days to visit family and to get reacquainted with the amazing ocean beaches.  To get there we rode BC Ferries - SKon the BC Ferries.  Interestingly the Ferries have recently added wireless Internet access so you can connect while on the open ocean.  Most large airports now provide Internet access and increasingly access is also available while flying.

We visited Newcastle Island located in the Nanaimo harbour.  It is a 10 minute little ferry ride over from Nanaimo.  We practically had Newcastle Island path 2 - SKthe island to ourselves.  It was a beautiful sunny day and we circumnavigated the 8km route around the island enjoying fresh ocean air.  We captured great nature pictures and parked ourselves for a few hours on a beach where we could read books and watch float planes coming and going.  Shelley made some cool beach art like this one…

Hope - SK

Even while on the island, “away from it all”, my smart phone was happily connected to the Internet since the telecommunications provider had ensured access was available.

After a few days in Nanaimo, we headed down island and over to the west coast to the village of Gold River to visit some family.  Gold River is a very small town that used to be supported by a substantial File:Gold river boot.jpgpulp mill operation – it shut down about 13 years ago.  There are only about 1200 people still living there.  The economy is barely hanging on through logging, fishing, and tourism.  The bank recently closed, there is no hospital, there is one elementary and one secondary school and apparently you can’t get a tire repaired in town (I asked).  Campbell River, 1.25 hours away, is the nearest “city” for these kinds of necessities.

I couldn’t believe my eyes!  My smart phone not only had no “bars”, it had no signal!  I thought ‘okay, it’s just like home, some places have better reception than others’.  But no, it turns out there is no reception for cell or smart phones in Gold River.  Not one provider Newcastle Island 046offers a wireless service in this small town in modern British Columbia…  That was an eye opener for me.  After I got over the shock of being completely cut off from the digital world, I actually found it quite peaceful.  No emails to check, no texts to send, no Twitter, Facebook, or maps or searches to consult.  Being disconnected does have its advantages – it creates a sense of calm…  but, I digress…  Gold River’s broad band Internet service is also quite limited.  It is slow and when a home exceeds the prescribed bandwidth limit, costs go up dramatically.  I would say that Gold River has a rather different digital access experience than what I’m used to.

As we advocate for a more complete digital learning experience for students, a more complete digital approach to our work, and a digitally integrated life style, we need to also advocate for equitable access.  I don’t think it’s practical or cost achievable to expect equal access from anywhere but there needs to be reasonable access for digital practices to be viable.  In some ways, as we all know, digital access is even more important in more remote places.  As 3D immersive virtual learning (also) (not online courses as we know them now) becomes the norm, as I believe it will, providing good access to remote places for all students will be essential.  How do we close or eliminate the digital divide?  Who should be most responsible for this?  Governments?  Telecommunications providers?  What do you think?  Or does it really matter?


  1. We've been fortunate in Fort St John with upgrades to our infrastructure for Internet. I would assume that is partly due to the economic engine that the northeast represents for the province. Part is also advocacy from our SD, and regional partner groups. I appreciate the work people at PLNet/SPANBC have done for and with us. We still have one school in town that will cost around 70k to upgrade to a fiber optic connection. Several other remote schools (yes remote compared to Fort St John) that will need some serious dollars and partnerships to connect. Fast, reliable, high bandwidth connections are critical for our future in education. Especially in places that have difficulty in finding a physics teacher for four students that want to take physics for example. Great opportunities exist via distributed learning if the Internet connection is available.

    We are doing well compared to many other parts of the province with our infrastructure. In a recent teleconference regarding the government deal with Telus, colleagues on the northwest coast were more concerned with access than what the deals could entail. There are communities in valleys that cannot get satellite service, and have poor cellular data service if any. I applaud the government on the deal, but there is serious work that will need to be done to connect the communities and the learners of this province.

    So how close are we to close the digital divide? Thousands and thousands of km of fiber optic cable apart. Whose responsible? All the levels of governments need to work towards and every school board needs to advocate for better Internet.

  2. @Jarrod... yes, the challenge and cost to connect increases proportionally to the distance from Metro Vancouver doesn't it. And the value to a vendor decreases similarly... it is a huge challenge but once the fiber is in, the doors are wide open with potential! Thanks for sharing the Fort St. John story - sounds like a good model.

  3. Gord Holden ( 9, 2011 at 11:48 AM

    A DL student of mine that lived on an island recently had broadband introduced. The Minister involved is alleged to have said that it was "the right" of every Canadian to have broadband access. I am not going to track down the article, as they would likely say they were misquoted anyway, but this paper has a lot to say on the subject.

  4. @Gord... I think we are definitely heading to "it is a right" with respect to solid access. It is increasingly difficult to fully engage in our world and society without good access. I hope Canada does make this a priority! Thanks for the article - it was an interesting read.


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