Some Sask. families may not be able to have virtual visits this holiday season

With the internet patchy at best — and in some cases, non-existent — in rural homes across the province, families like the Priebes are wondering if they’ll be able to connect virtually with their loved ones this holiday season during the coronavirus lockdown.

Nancy Priebe and her husband live with a blended family of their four kids on a farm outside of Hodgeville, Sask.

Her older children haven’t been able to see their father in Alberta due to the pandemic and have relied on video chat to connect with him.

“It’s been really tough,” she said. “Lots of times, the internet crashes. It doesn’t work. They can’t finish their chat with him.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen on Christmas Day,” she said, referencing a time that they’d normally have the chance to visit in-person with their father, but won’t be this year due to both provinces’ restrictions limiting gatherings to immediate households.

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Read more: Coronavirus — Families worry kids will fall behind in school due to online challenges

Because of the location of the Priebes’ farm, they don’t have direct access to an internet tower. Other people’s trees are in the way. For years, they had to tether to their cellphones to get online, draining what data they could get with their plans.

Finally, in June, when the kids were homeschooling during the pandemic, a small company called Wood River Controls came up with a solution to bounce a signal off an agreeable neighbour.

“If they use too much, our internet crashes. Or if their power goes out or if they unplug the router, our internet crashes,” Priebe said.

She said the company has been trying its best to work with them and they appreciate being online. For now, this is the only option.

Read more: SaskTel bringing high-speed internet to over 20 rural Saskatchewan communities

Wood River Controls, servicing south Saskatchewan, is a small company that specializes in helping rural residents like the Priebes by finding unique solutions to connectivity issues.

“We don’t like to say no,” said Wood River Controls president John de Graauw, who, living rurally himself, knows firsthand the struggles of being offline. “It’s one of those, ‘Well, if we bounce this off of this, a grain bin or shop or firehall, we can make it happen.’ ”

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Wood River Controls comes up with innovative solutions to get rural residents in southern Saskatchewan connected to the internet.
Wood River Controls comes up with innovative solutions to get rural residents in southern Saskatchewan connected to the internet. John de Graauw / Supplied

Each customer has a unique circumstance, which means there’s no cookie cutter the company can use.

Since the coronavirus arrived in the province, demand for what Wood River Controls tries to do has skyrocketed.

The customer base, including new clients from another provider it bought out, has nearly quadrupled. Radio outputs signal usage is up by two to two and a half times.

“It’s hard. We sit on a huge list of people and every day I get: When am I coming? When am I coming? When am I coming?” de Graauw said.

“It’s insane right now. We’re working around the clock to try and get into Christmas so that people can have it.”

Read more: APAS Connectivity Task Force researching internet issues in rural Saskatchewan areas

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The Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, which has been advocating for better rural connectivity, worries about the mental health impacts on rural residents who are already cut off from so much during this pandemic.

“I fear that there’s going to be people who wish to reach out to their family over Christmas and they’re not going to be able to because of poor internet — and what a heartbreak that will be,” said the association’s vice-president, Ian Boxall.

“I think it will take a huge toll.”

Boxall urges people to be patient with their internet this holiday season.

“I think we’re going to see the system really taxed,” he said, adding a reminder that phone calls are still an option.

Boxall is part of the association’s task force studying the broader implications of ongoing rural internet challenges.

Preliminary findings indicate 62 per cent of rural residents able to get the internet experience service disruptions daily, 32 per cent experience them weekly or monthly and only six per cent experience them once a year or less.

The task force is working on a report due in early 2021 is a step toward finding alternatives to get “adequate internet and cellphone service to the rural residents,” Boxall said.

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