Surviving Slow Internet in the North
By Michael Tyas
This summer I’ve visited a number of First Nations communities in northern Manitoba through my work with the Wa Ni Ska Tan Alliance of Hydro Impacted Communities. These communities are linked by not only the devastating impacts of hydroelectric development and flooding; they also have slow-as-molasses data service. There were times that I would have a 10-second window of data transmission per minute. If my phone asked for too much at once, nothing would come through. My browser would be spinning endlessly just to load a simple search result, and if the result was more than a couple hundred kilobytes, I’d have to wait another minute for the rest to arrive. I had to increase the screen timeout because my phone would go dark before a page would load. Large communities like Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation and Pimicikamak Cree Nation have thousands of cellular subscribers paying top dollar for full plans, including data, but they all have to share a single transmission tower. At times of high data traffic, this grinds the data transmission to a halt.
I contacted Rogers, my service provider, and indicated there was a problem with data in multiple communities. They responded that the system was working as expected; they only had one tower for a vast regions, and they had “no upcoming plans to add additional towers.”
The situation often didn’t improve much once I got on Wifi. As northern communities are often the last stop on the cable for bits and bytes, the systems that deliver the internet are equally squeezed for capacity. It also didn’t help that my host’s Wifi password had been shared around the neighbourhood and she had 22 users logged onto her router! (I encouraged her to change her password. Sorry, tweens!)
Plan B, then. I’d have to change the way that I use data. I figured that if I could make my phone only ask for data when I wanted it to, that it would have a better chance of getting through. I discovered a number of apps and mobile features to help in this regard. These options didn’t give me an information highway; more like an information bush trail! Better to go somewhere slowly than nowhere at all. By reducing requests, my phone made more efficient use of the data I was able to snag some information.
Step 1. Force your phone to use data sparingly. On both iOS and Android, your settings can control how data is asked for. That way the message to your kookum won’t be blocked by a Candy Crush update. This feature limits certain apps from asking for data when they are in the background and restricts large downloads unless you’re on Wifi. If you find yourself on a suffering Wifi connection, you can also tell your phone to treat Wifi as “metered” which tricks your phone into believing it’s using cellular data and therefor minimizes data used.
On Android this feature is called Data Saver, and iOS it is called Low Data Mode.
Step 2. Force your apps to use data sparingly. Youtube, Netflix, Facebook, and app stores can use large amounts of data. They also have data saving features baked in, and some even have offline modes. Visit the settings page for each of your apps to see if you can lower your data usage.
Step 3. Use specialty lite apps or visit sites on your browser. Google has a suite of lite apps with the Go moniker attached, and they all have two things in common. They are all very small to download, and they are all designed to sip data. Here’s a list of lite apps you can download to replace the data hogs on your phone. Gmail Go, Google Maps Go, Youtube Go…there’s many options. Run a search of your favourite apps and include the word ‘lite’ to see if an alternative is available.
My favourite data-saving app is Opera Mini for Android. With extreme data saver mode, it strips down webpages to their essential elements without all the bloat. You can choose to see only low-resolution images or turn them off entirely. Opera Mini has unfortunately been removed from the iOS store, however, you can try to find the app installation file and load it anyway on iPhone.
Step 4. Save big downloads for 4 AM. I’m only half kidding: When most people are asleep the communications lines are fast enough to seem normal. But this isn’t normal, it’s not right, and that leads us into…
Step 5. Launch a class action lawsuit against big telcos that have redlined northern Indigenous communities. You pay the same rates for cellular services as everybody else. It’s appalling that infrastructure is not keeping pace with demand.