By DARREN YOURK
Globe and Mail Update
Access to high-speed Internet by cable in Canada is rising rapidly, but small communities are still lagging behind cities when it comes to taking advantage of the fastest way to surf the Web.
According to a Statistics Canada report released Tuesday, improvements in the availability of cable technology in smaller communities has yet to close the access gap between them and cities, but Canadian cable companies are making substantial investments to their networks to increase the number of high-speed Internet subscribers in all areas of the country.
The report says that, in small communities, more than 70 per cent of cable homes (homes with access to cable) did not have access to high-speed Internet by cable in 2001.
“It is always difficult to gauge what's happening in the smaller communities,” Chris Weisdorf, president and technical director of the Toronto-based Residential Broadband Users' Association told globeandmail.com Tuesday.
“...Yes there is a large disparity between those who use Internet service in large communties and those who use it in small communities, but the disparity is shrinking.”
As of Aug. 31, 2001, just over 9.4 million Canadian homes, about 85 per cent of all cable homes, had access to broadband service, up from about 70 per cent in 2000.
In total, there were just under 1.4 million subscribers to Internet by cable in August of 2001, up 77 per cent from 2000. This growth continued in the latter part of 2001, and the number of subscribers surpassed 1.7 million at the end of the year, Statistics Canada's Household Internet Use Survey says.
Deployment occurred fastest in small communities, where the number of homes with access to high-speed service more than doubled to almost 363,400. This represented only about 27 per cent of homes with access to cable, up from 11 per cent in 2000. In medium-sized communities, 78 per cent had high-speed cable access, compared with 47 per cent in 2000.
The network upgrades necessary to offer cable service were almost completed in the largest communities, where 96 per cent of cable homes had access to broadband technology in 2001, up from 86 per cent in 2000.
The rate of adoption of cable Internet also progressed rapidly in communities of all sizes. Overall, almost 15 per cent of homes with access to cable Internet had adopted it as of August, 2001.
The rate of adoption was highest in large communities (16 per cent) and lowest in small communities (10 per cent).
There are signs that the gap between large and small communities will continue to close. Investments in cable systems serving small communities amounted to $88.5-million in 2001, up from $74.8-million in 2000.
The top four Canadian operators (Rogers, Shaw, Cogeco and Vidéotron, which have aggressively upgraded their networks in large and medium communities in recent years, invested $34.7-million in small communities in 2001. This could signal a wish to offer a suite of broadband services similar to those available in larger communities.
The report says that if the strategy were adopted, availability of high-speed Internet by cable in small communities would progress significantly, since 40 per cent of cable homes in these communities are served by those operators.
Mr. Weisdorf also points to alternative methods of broadband Internet access like wireless access as another way to shrink the gap between small commuities and cities.
“It's clear that cable companies and telephone companies went for the big city centres and moved out from there,” Mr. Weisdorf said. “...It is possible to bridge that last mile with a wireless solution...It is something that is making its way forward and certainly in rural communities it could work.”