Some Yukon terrestrial DSL internet customers say they’re having difficulty staying under usage limits, even with Northwestel’s relief plan, due to data-gobbling video calls that are key for business and schooling in the age of COVID-19.
Northwestel announced in late March that it was introducing a relief package for residential internet customers in the wake of the global pandemic, which has seen the shuttering of schools and closure of businesses in the Yukon.
While cable internet users are having their overage fees waived outright, that’s not the case for people with terrestrial DSL packages, who are receiving an extra 100 GB per month on top of their normal plans.
In the Yukon, everyone outside of Whitehorse, Carcross and Old Crow are on terrestrial DSL plans, which uses phone lines instead of cable television lines to deliver internet to homes.
Andrea McColeman, a piano teacher who lives out along the Alaska Highway just outside of Whitehorse city limits, said in an interview April 23 that her family had used 520 GB as of the previous day — far beyond the 300 GB plan she pays for, plus the extra 100 GB in relief.
That amounted to $300 in overage fees.
Her plan, DSL Internet 15, is about $84 a month for 200 GB, plus an additional $80 for an extra 100 GB.
“It added up so quick, I couldn’t believe it,” McColeman said.
McColeman said 300 GB a month is usually fine for her family, but COVID-19 has changed things: Her two children, one in high school and one in university, are now both home and using the internet to complete the rest of their school year. Her husband is working from home, something he doesn’t usually do. And while McColeman has always taught music lessons from her home, she said that normally, they happen in-person; now, she has to do them over Facetime or Zoom.
She said her family had hit 400 GB by April 15, and is now getting a second line installed and paying for two 300 GB plans instead of risking incurring overage charges again.
“We don’t really have a choice because we can’t do our work and lock these kids in the house with nothing to do… It’s much better than paying the overage, and I’m sure once things get back to normal, we’ll probably discontinue (the second line),” she said.
Mount Lorne resident Erin Woods said she was facing a similar situation. The professional bookkeeper is now working from home, and also has two young children finishing the rest of their school year via distance learning.
She estimated her home’s internet use had increased by “probably 150 per cent” over the last month, and as of April 27, had used 95 per cent of her 200 GB plan, plus the 100 GB of relief.
“I really feel that it’s the Zoom meetings that are eating the data because our consumption, like there’s a little more with the kids being home but I feel like our consumption of streaming services hasn’t increased as substantially as our bill has,” she said.
In an interview April 23, Northwestel spokesperson Andrew Anderson said there’s a five-year modernization plan that’s in the works that will eventually bring unlimited access and better speeds to communities currently on terrestrial DSL.
However, in the meantime, he said, Northwestel’s “obligation is to ensure that the network is available for everybody, that we do not exceed the capacity of what the network can handle, and because of that, when we introduced internet usage relief measures, there were different measures based on the capacity available for different technologies.”
Anderson could not say exactly what the maximum capacity for Northwestel’s current terrestrial DSL network in any of its service areas is, nor what would happen if terrestrial DSL users had unlimited access right now.
“I’m not going to speculate on what would happen in a hypothetical situation,” he said.
He did say, though, that Northwestel has seen in increase in usage across the North — up to 50 per cent in some communities over a month and a half ago — and that the the 100 GB in relief has not negatively impacted service.
Northwestel is also able to make “local adjustments to increase capacity somewhat,” he said, but getting DSL customers up to the same standard as cable users is a long-term project.
“Where needed, we’ve been able to make the investments that we can turn around quickly to ensure that we can meet that commitment (to service), but … our vision for internet connectivity in the North is a longer-term project and fundamentally, I think, requires something like the project we’ve put forward to have fibre-to-the-home throughout communities in the North,” he said.
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