SaskTel Had a Province-Wide Internet Outage — And It Was a Good Thing!

Friday afternoon, Saskatchewan was cut off from the rest of the world when the internet, including mobile data, went dead across the province. Since they have the monopoly in this province, they own all the equipment. There were no obviously no redundancies on their grid so the only people who would have had internet service had to have been on Xplornet. This was SaskTel’s second province-wide outage in two months. Both were caused by faulty equipment.

I went through a serious telecom outage this when I was up in Yukon. There was just one cable bringing service into the territory and it got waterlogged from all the firefighting going on. All telecom went down. When an outage like that happens in a remote territory with a population of around 25,000, it’s just one of those things that happen when you live up north. But in a province of more than one million people? It’s embarrassing.

The part of the outage that proved to me that SaskTel is not up to the task of running a 21st century telecom grid is how long it took for their answering service to get a message up saying, “We’re aware there’s a problem. It’s province-wide. We’ll update again as soon as we know how long t his will take.” You know, what SaskPower does within minutes of the lights going out. Instead, SaskTel’s answering service got flooded and would just hang up on you.

What I found most interesting about the outage was that I could have predicted it if I had thought about it hard enough. My internet was actually fine after I got the new booster last year. I was getting a decent signal and no drops. I could live with it. But my connection has been a nightmare since I got back this spring and it hasn’t been any better in town. I couldn’t get anything worth mentioning done in Moose Jaw and I had a hard time getting my emails in Willow Bunch. Something was up with the network, but SaskTel brushed me off at every call, telling me the problem was my phone.

It’s now the second morning since the outage. I have had a strong, steady signal (comparable to what I get without the booster areas where I don’t need the booster) since the internet came back up Friday morning. Yesterday was a perfectly non-frustrating day when I had research to do and while Google is still very slow, my searches came up. I even had internet well past 8PM when I normally don’t have usable service in the evening. Everything’s been fine this morning.

At some point while I was away, SaskTel increased speeds at the tower I connect to. When I’m not throttled and my signal is strong (as it’s been since yesterday morning), I’m getting speeds that are 2.5 times faster than last year (2.5Mbps). Considering what I went through for internet service until I got the new booster, I could actually be satisfied with this service if I knew I could rely on having it every day. I’m not delusional. I know that adequate internet service will take ages to come out here and I would be happy with small steps like doubling our speeds every six to twelve months. It says a lot that I didn’t notice for almost a month that I was getting better speeds than last year!

What the outage made me realise is that Haven’s internet issue is a Saskatchewan-wide issue. They’re always going to have the infrastructure, but we need more ISPs competing for business on that infrastructure so that there is more accountability when that infrastructure fails. Bell and Rogers are not a true competitors. What we need are small locally-owned ISPs that understand the unique challenges of operating a telecom in Saskatchewan. There are a couple, but they operate out of Saskatoon and Regina. I’ve contacted them to show that there is a large untapped market between the TransCanada and the Montana border, including the communities of Assiniboia, Willow Bunch, Coronach, Rockglen, and Scout Lake, that has been neglected by SaskTel and needs more options. Once these smaller ISPs get a foothold down here, then we can start having the conversation about getting service to the Sylvan Valley.

I’ve been in contact with ISPs in other provinces that offer nearly Canada-wide service, but are not in Saskatchewan. They all cite the difficulty of doing business with SaskTel as the primary reason why they are not in the province yet. And they were all very interested to learn that there is such an untapped market desperate for them to hammer out some sort of agreement with SaskTel.

Stressful as the outage was, it ended up being a good thing as it fixed something majorly wrong with SaskTel’s service. I just hope that I continue to enjoy adequate service for my last couple of weeks here.

I Need to Plan Better for Impromptu Mini Road Trips

Work was really slow today, so, on a whim, I took off for Moose Jaw at 11:00 this morning. The plan was to get sushi for lunch and then find jeans and a couple of skirts for my upcoming grand adventure, as well as possibly get a new nose stud, just for a change of colour. I’ve been doing a lot of online shopping for bits of my travel wardrobe, but it’s so hard to find jeans that fit me properly that I wanted to buy them in person and shipping on the skirts I wanted was outrageous, so I hoped to find something locally. I wasn’t optimistic on the skirt front, though, since it seems that no one wears skirts anymore, especially not out in my rural area, so choice is poor in stores.

Well, I hit a snag in my plans immediately after a very delicious and satisfying sushi lunch (DK Sushi is as great as ever!): I managed to leave home without my wallet!!!! OMG. There I was 150KM from home with about 75 cents in cash on me. I thought I had a US 20 buried at the bottom of the purse, but only just discovered that I had taken it out and put it in my foreign currency bucket at home. So yup, I had about 75 cents on me and an $18 lunch bill…

The CIBC is at the opposite end of the same block as DK, so I thought that I would see if I could make a cash withdrawal with just what I had on me for ID, which was my phone, which would give me account numbers and balances. I asked the cashier at the restaurant if she would let me try in exchange for leaving my truck keys. Yes.

So off I went to the bank, where I was greeted with the usual, “How can I help you?” and I replied, “I don’t think you can, but here goes, I left my wallet at home, south of Assiniboia.” The woman burst out laughing and said, “You just need some cash?” “Yes,” I replied meekly. “Not a problem!” she replied to my immense surprise. I had to give her the phone number on the account, the account number, the balance to the penny, my full name, and my date of birth (not in that order) to make a withdrawal that would, hopefully, cover all my purchases for the day. I mean, I was already in town so I might as well pursue my plans, but be extra careful with my driving!

I settled the restaurant bill and burst out laughing at the fortune I got with my cookie:

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Little did I know, Passport Canada inefficiency notwithstanding, the cookie fortune would prophetic.

First stop was the Salvation Army Thrift store, where I found the exact model of jeans I wanted, in my size, and with a tag still on them. They were a lighter wash than I wanted, but at less than $2.50 (half off special!), I knew I would regret not buying them.

Then, I went to the jean store, whatever it’s called, in the Town and Country Mall, where my piercer is situated. They didn’t have darker jeans in the same style I’d just bought, but, get this, I found my skirt! It was exactly what I wanted in terms of fabric and cut. And it was buy one, get one half off! I ideally wanted two skirts to go with me since I knew I’d live in them, so that was an incredible deal. Less than $50 for both!

Unfortunately, my piercer was off on maternity leave, something I would have known if I had checked her Facebook page before leaving. I could have bought a new stud, but would have had to put it in myself. I’m not able to do that without a lot of pain because my fingers are so big and clumsy, so I passed. I don’t mind the one I have now; it would have just been nice to have something different since I can actually see my stud when I look down at my nose.

I was at a loss at this point about where else to try for jeans since I’ve never bought clothes in Moose Jaw except at the thrift store when I had a brilliant epiphany: Reitmans moves to summer stock about this time of year and the fall/winter stuff goes on sale. I hoofed it up to the store on Thatcher Drive and learned that I was right: all jeans were 50% off, so $24 instead of $48! They had exactly what I wanted, so I was out of there very quickly! I’m not sure I’ll have room for both pairs in my suitcase, but it would be nice to have the lighter pair for casual things so I can keep the darker ones for when I want to be a bit dressier.

I was beat by this point and still had work due tonight, so I headed home, not bothering to get any groceries. Prices aren’t really that much better than in Assiniboia and I’m trying not to keep too much in the house since I’ll be leaving withing the next three to four weeks.

I took the scenic route home and enjoyed blazing fast internet (by Saskatchewan rural standards) at a stop I made to enjoy the view, more than 30KM in any direction from any settlement bigger than a farmstead. Meanwhile, my hamlet, a proper community with all other services (except cable TV) is half that distance from a proper town with broadband and we’re too far from civilization to get service. Got to love SaskTel’s logic!

Thank you to CIBC for saving the day! I’ll be better at putting my wallet back in my purse from now on! 😀

Why I Need Fast, Reliable, and Unlimited Internet Access

That I even have to explain why I need fast, reliable, and unlimited internet access speaks volumes to how Canadians and Americans (whose internet situation is only slightly better than ours) have been indoctrinated to perceive internet usage: as something frivolous and unnecessary.

So I will tell you that I need fast, reliable, and unlimited internet access because my livelihood depends on it.

I run a transcription business. I have been doing so for five years now. I have no idea what it is people think I do all day, to be honest, because, based on some of the comments I’ve received about my need for internet, it seems that folks think I’m on Netflix all day or something. There is zero comprehension that my anger, frustration, and impatience at my internet situation are driven by a much more powerful emotion: fear.

Those of you who have ever run your own business know how hard it is to do so. I’ve been able to work solely for myself for four years now and for the last two and a half, I’ve been turning a profit and making a decent income. Of course, work comes in peaks and valleys, but I can ride out the slow months now. I have a solid stable of clients and an immense freedom of schedule. Every time that I have an internet outage or that speeds slow to a crawl is a moment that threatens the very foundation of my life.

Here’s what I use internet for on a daily basis, how my internet situation makes these things difficult, and why the solutions people give me simply don’t work for my situation.

Downloading files from clients using Dropbox, FTP, Hightail, or even receiving them as email attachments.

Just for work files, I can go through 20GB to over 100GB of bandwidth in a month, depending on how many video files I receive. Again, this is business usage! I’m not downloading TV shows or streaming Netflix. This bandwidth represents my monthly income.

Slow internet means that it can take forever to download anything. I usually have to turn down rush jobs that pay very well because I know I won’t have time to download the files and type them in the allotted amount of time.

Flaky internet means that downloads often drop. This is a major issue with the Hightail file sharing service in that if the connection drops in the middle of downloading a 1GB file, I have to start all over again, wasting both time and bandwidth.

Every client I’ve taken on has a clause in the contract that says that their subcontractors must have fast and reliable internet access. So there is no sympathy for me on days when the wind is blowing the wrong way, service is very spotty, and it takes me so long to download a file that I don’t have enough time left to type it by the deadline. I just don’t get paid for those files.

I lost one really good client because I had to work on their proprietary online platform rather than downloading files to my computer and it would take me about five times as long as anyone else to stream their audio and so I wasn’t able to meet the production metrics.

People who are unable to sympathise with my internet connection and/or don’t get just how much I need to download for work will tell me, “Just download overnight,” or “Go up the hill to the good signal once a day to download.” This isn’t a solution. If I’m up the hill for six hours a day downloading, I’m not in my office typing and earning income. If I start a download overnight and it times out, then I have the risk of the files not being ready for me to type in the morning.

Communicating with clients by email and Skype.

This is one area where I know that very few people understand what it means to rely on the internet for communication purposes in a business setting. I cannot believe the number of people who have told me to check and send emails twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening, and not worry if I can’t receive or send anything during the day.

I communicate daily with my clients throughout the day. Some days are quieter than others and then there are days when I can’t get any real work done because emails won’t stop coming in. When internet drops and emails don’t come in in a timely fashion or the connection is so flaky that I can’t send even a small attachment, that affects how I look professionally. There’s nothing like getting and replying to a message with “URGENT” in the subject line an hour late to tell your clients that you’re not professional and not reliable.

Until I was able to get my better booster (thank you again to everyone who understood why I needed help with making the purchase and generously donated), I frequently had to pack up my computer and park my truck at the top of the nearest hill in order to send work. That is all time that I am not at my desk earning money.

Also, I have clients all over the world. Last summer, I was doing some projects out of Tunisia and Senegal and my client needed to speak to me from Dakar, shooting me an email asking if “now” was a good time to Skype as that was obviously the best way to do it. Skype sometimes works at home, but I can’t rely on it not dropping out and this had been a particularly bad day for internet. I replied that I needed 20 minutes, then hurriedly packed up my computer and drove to the nearest spot with a decent signal. Well, my client had been available 20 minutes before, but not then, and I had to sit up there for 30 minutes before he was available again. Again, this was time that I lost out of my day when I could have been making money and which threatened making a deadline on a project.

This happened again recently. A client in Kansas City wanted to Skype at his convenience. He’s a busy doctor and making an appointment doesn’t work well. When I was in Mexico, he knew that if Skype said I was in the office, he could call me and I’d be able to drop what I was doing and deal with him. Here, we had to try three times before we were able to make a satisfactory connection.

Doing research.

I transcribe a lot of highly technical material and so am constantly on Google researching spellings and other information needed to properly transcribe my files. A lot of my legal work has addresses, so I’m using Google Maps. Google does not work well unless you have a blazing fast connection. A simple Google search, not even in Maps, can take me ten minutes or more on a bad day.

I used to highlight those instances in my files and then, at the end of the day, look everything up at once. First of all, this took as much time as making each search individually. Second of all, I often would type these things phonetically. If I couldn’t find my answer based on my phonetic spelling, I would have to rescan the audio file to find that particular word or phrase and try other phonetic spellings. It was very time consuming and inefficient.

As a final note, I really shouldn’t have to waste my time writing all these letters and posts, making all these phone calls, and pleading for a service that the vast majority of the rest of the world takes for granted.

Just think for a minute of the hours I have put into demanding 21st century-level internet in my part of Saskatchewan and how much income I have sacrificed to give this project all that time.

Would I really be doing that if internet access was something that, really, I could do without? Or if, “Taking a deep breath and trying again in a few hours when the internet works better” was a viable option? Or that I would have pleaded for help to buy that better booster if I didn’t truly believe that I was going to lose the best contract of my life because I couldn’t reliably receive and send emails with small attachments?

If you think that the answers to any of those questions is no, then you’re part of the reason why Canada is far behind most of the rest of the world in matters of telecom. You really need to get out of this discussion so that those of us who want to move into the 21st century can get things changed.

I Am Accusing SaskTel Management of Corruption

I talked with some neighbours tonight about our internet disaster after their son (hi, Zack!) brought some of my blog posts to their attention. After some emails with the attorney essentially representing me at the recent CRTC hearings and conversations with neigbours who have been here longer than I am, I am ready to flat out accuse SaskTel management of corruption and of accepting kickbacks/bribes or other illicit financial incentives from at least two sources. What makes their behaviour particularly contemptible is that they are a crown corporation. Therefore, I am also accusing both the Saskatchewan and Canadian governments as well as the CRTC of colluding in that corruption.

Accusation number one is related to the land on which sits the infamous Scout Lake Tower that serves no one but a couple of very isolated farmsteads.

One of SaskTel’s arguments for not provided the Sylvan Valley with service is that we’re not enough people. We are several hundred people. Why are the handful of homes up there more important than the hamlet of St. Victor and the surrounding farmsteads?

SaskTel also says that that the Scout Lake tower is serving the number two highway between Rockglen and Assiniboia. The highway was already serviced by the Rockglen and Assiniboia towers.

An independent company I contacted to get information about what it would cost to get a repeater installed in the valley used GIS systems to overlay existing service, population, and topography and could not find a logical reason why the Scout Lake tower was put where it is.

The only thing that SaskTel have not commented on is what sort of deal was made with the person who owns the land on which the Scout Lake tower versus what discussions were had with landowners down here in the valley.

In short, every single one of SaskTel’s reasons for placing the Scout Lake tower where they did is unfounded and it is not unreasonable to assume that the reason was for their benefit, not that of the population they are supposed to serve.

Accusation number two is tied to the local satellite service provider, Xplornet. SaskTel is inexplicably pushing Sylvan Valley residents to adopt Xplornet satellite internet.

First of all, it is inconceivable to me that a modern internet service provider claims that satellite is a reasonable way to provide internet access anywhere but an ice floe or that it is truly “broadband” internet. Satellite has latency, meaning you cannot use it for Skype, Netflix, and other similar services. It looks good on paper in terms of speeds and bandwidth allowances, but there are bandwidth restrictions at peak hours.

And that’s if the service works at all. My aforementioned neighbours will be the first to testify that Xplornet is a scam. The service does not work and customer service is non-existent (canceling the service proved to be nightmare for my neighbours).

That SaskTel is pushing this service means that, at best, they are completely out of touch with internet needs in the 21st century and, at worst, that they have some sort of financial arrangement with Xplornet.

Moreover, the entire Sylvan Valley has landline telephone service. It stands to reason that those wires need servicing. I frequently see SaskTel trucks down here in the valley working on the telephone lines. How is it that no one has thought that when they do that, they should upgrade service with the goal being to connect us to DSL?  The last DSL connection is only 16KM away on both the east and west roads out of the hamlet.

When I suggested upgraded phone lines, which would provide us with hard wired internet, something that would be preferable to cellular, I was mocked by SaskTel for having no understanding of how this sort of infrastructure development happens and is budgeted for. Yet, this is the solution that everyone from that independent company looking at our cellular issues to other ISPs and local residents has come up with as being the most sensible. Rather than do something like that, SaskTel prefers to do minimal work on our telephone lines and push satellite service on us. Something doesn’t add up.

The CRTC hearings proved to be a joke. Recommendations were made, but nothing changed and the government continues to give our ISPs full rights to deny service if they don’t want to provide it, no matter the reason. In SaskTel’s case, that reason obviously goes deeper than them not wanting to spend some money. Obviously, whatever kickbacks they are getting by denying us service are worth more to them than all the potential future revenue they would get from hundreds of customers down here in the Sylvan Valley.

As for the Canadian government colluding with them, their idea of what sort of service Canadians should have is so far behind the rest of the world that it must be considering as hilarious as it is sad.

I am leaving Canada because of internet access issues. But I will continue to fight the fight from abroad in the hope that one day I can come home to the place I decided I wanted to put down roots and actually be able to earn a living without wasting all this time arguing for a service that is a given in the rest of the developed world and in much of the developing world.