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Canada’s Internet Equity Gap: Rural residents suffer with inferior service during pandemic

By Josh Tabish
Public Affairs Manager

OTTAWA – APRIL 13, 2021 – At a time when Canadians are counting more than ever on reliable broadband service, residents of rural areas must cope with starkly inferior access compared to cities. And the gap has grown during the year of the pandemic.

New data from the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) suggests that at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the median download speed in rural areas was about 5.42 Mbps, far behind the median 26.16 Mbps in cities. As lockdowns took hold and Canadians worked increasingly from home, city dwellers benefited from big improvements, while those living in the country had to cope with speeds that improved at a much slower rate. By March 2021 the median speed in cities grew to 51.09 Mbps, compared to about 9.74 Mbps in rural areas (see figures below), meaning the disparity grew substantially during the pandemic.

“As we’ve seen in the pandemic, internet access is an essential service and an issue of social equity,” said CIRA president and CEO, Byron Holland. “Whether it’s virtual health care, virtual schooling, or virtual office work, it’s not right that many people who live in the country don’t have broadband that’s at least comparable to what’s available in cities.”

The disparity is all the more consequential, given the widely reported movement of urban residents to smaller centers during the pandemic. Both the federal and provincial governments, as well as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) have recently made major funding announcements to improve broadband. CIRA welcomes the new initiatives and will continue to monitor improvements closely, but believes it is essential that the gap be closed.

Key Findings

The findings below are based on test results generated between March 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021 from a total of 198,921 urban tests and 137,158 rural tests.

  • Over the first year of the pandemic, urban internet users saw average download speeds increase to about 50 Mbps, while rural speeds did see steady improvement until January 2021.
  • Since the pandemic started, rural speeds have been between one-fifth and one-tenth urban speeds. From March to December rural download speeds hovered around 5.5 Mbps, compared to roughly 50 Mbps in urban Canada (Figure 1).
  • Measured urban download speeds have nearly doubled since the start of the pandemic. In March 2020, the median download speed was 26.16 Mbps, compared to 51.09 Mbps in March 2021.
  • For rural users, median upload speeds have been roughly one-tenth urban speeds for most of the pandemic. In December, that gap began to close, with rural upload speeds beginning to show steady improvement.

The data was gathered using CIRA’s Internet Performance Test. Since the launch of the program as a public service, Canadians have completed over 950,000 tests. CIRA is currently helping dozens of local governments and organizations who collectively represent over 1000 communities across Canada heat map connectivity in their region.

Canadians can help promote faster internet for all by taking CIRA’s Internet Performance Test at

Figures and Graphs

Figure 1: Canada’s Urban-Rural Digital Divide


Figure 2: Rural Internet Speeds


Figure 3: Urban Internet Speeds


Additional background

  • In October, the Canada Infrastructure Bank announced $2 billion in available financing for broadband deployment projects.
  • In November, the federal government launched its $1.75 billion Universal Broadband Fund, which has since announced funding for several projects under its Rapid Response stream.
  • Since August, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has awarded millions for rural and remote broadband projects as part of its $750 million Broadband Fund.
  • In January 2021, Elon Musk’s satellite internet provider Starlink began beta testing in Canada.

About CIRA’s Internet Performance Test

CIRA’s Internet Performance Test is one of the most advanced tests of internet speed and quality available and has the public interest at its core. The test nodes are located in internet exchange points in Tier 1 Canadian cities, rather than within an ISP’s own network architecture. This allows CIRA to measure the actual performance of an internet connection to an “off-net” server in real network conditions, closely representing the true internet experience of Canadian users. To assess internet performance, CIRA uses the Network Diagnostic Test (NDT) developed by M-Lab. The platform allows Canadians to test the quality of their internet connections – including metrics for speed, latency, jitter, and packet loss. Canadians have performed over 950,000 tests on the platform since May of 2015.

About the Canadian Internet Registration Authority

CIRA is a member-based, not-for-profit organization best known for managing the .CA top-level internet domain name on behalf of all Canadians. While CIRA’s core mandate is the safe, stable, and secure operation of the .CA domain and its underlying technologies, the organization also connects, protects, and engages the internet community in Canada and beyond by providing high-quality registry, DNS, and cybersecurity services.