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CIRA’s Internet Performance Test: mapping a better internet for Canadians

By Tanya O'Callaghan
Senior Manager, Communications

Over this past year, it’s no question that the pandemic has impacted the ways we work, learn and communicate. To provide a window into how the pandemic has affected our digital lives, CIRA recently released its 2021 Internet Factbook, brimming with insights around Canadians’ internet use and what experiences will be like as we “return to normal.”

When it comes to our eventual post-pandemic life, one thing is clear: some of the new digital habits and behaviours we’ve adopted this past year are here to stay. It’s also evident that gaps in internet access across the country will continue to make it difficult for some Canadians to learn, work, get help, connect with others and do business online.  

Test proves valuable for many Canadians

Since the start of the pandemic, CIRA’s Internet Performance Test (IPT) has skyrocketed in popularity. More than 330,000 tests were run in the last year:

  • Tens of thousands of Canadians struggling with internet challenges flocked to to find out exactly what internet speed they get and whether it matched with what their plans promised.

  • Media used CIRA’s IPT reports on the urban-rural digital divide to raise awareness in their coverage of the dramatic variations in internet access and quality across the country.

  • Maclean’s magazine used IPT data to inform their annual “Best places to live” index given the elevated importance of internet connectivity for people working remotely.

  • Perhaps the biggest development for the IPT has been the increased attention that governments have given to IPT data to the serious gaps in internet connectivity that persist across Canada.

Governments using CIRA’s IPT data

Since the pandemic began, CIRA has started using the IPT in our work with provincial, regional and municipal governments, as well as other organizations managing infrastructure projects.  Our project partners tell us the test is valuable in two ways – showing the current state of local connectivity and helping ensure new projects provide promised speeds over time.

A neutral view of current state

Much of the current mapping on the state of the internet in Canada is self-reported by Canada’s internet service providers (ISPs). As a result, users and elected officials have raised concerns that the lived experience of Canadians is not reflected. CIRA’s IPT has been selected by governments at every level nationwide to provide an alternate perspective.

In Alberta, the community of Sturgeon County has long been advocating that existing ISP maps showing 50/10 internet are incorrect. While those maps excluded the county from receiving the federal government’s Universal Broadband Fund investments, the local government is now working with CIRA to gather neutral data to provide a reality check on ISP-submitted maps. Hopefully, this shows the government the county is eligible for future government funding to help them fully participate in the digital economy.

Sturgeon County’s situation is not unique.

In the Northwest Territories, residents of small rural communities experience internet speeds that are among the slowest in Canada. The DigitalNWT project has been working with CIRA through the #NWTDigitalDivide campaign, which involves NWT residents running IPT tests and posting their results on social media.

The data generated is also valuable to researchers and policymakers. For example, the DigitalNWT team presented this information to the CRTC during recent proceedings on telecommunications services in Northern Canada.  Rob McMahon, Associate Professor in Media and Technology Studies in the Department of Political Science at University of Alberta, catalyzed the Digital NWT campaign:

A tool to measure the outcomes of broadband investments

As governments make significant investments in internet connectivity, it is critical to ensure taxpayers are getting their money’s worth. Jurisdictions across Canada are starting to plan how the outcomes of their investments will be measured and how to ensure suppliers deliver on their promises.

Pictou County, in Nova Scotia, uses IPT at various points in its broadband rollout program, including during the post-installation phase. For example, IPT is used upon installation to ensure residents are receiving the internet quality they are paying for currently, and at a certain period thereafter to ensure that connectivity quality is maintained post-installation, as well as in the future.

Infrastructure investments are a priority for CIRA

When it comes to getting the quality of internet that you’re paying for, especially when that connection is so crucial, there’s no question that CIRA’s IPT is extremely valuable for Canada’s internet and the millions of users who depend on it daily.

That’s why we do what we do. At CIRA, our purpose is to enable a trusted internet for Canadians.

Admittedly, a lot of CIRA’s activities fit under that goal: Getting online using a secure .CA domain name. Providing cybersecurity services so that Canadians and Canadian organizations can use the internet safely. Making sure Canadians’ voices are heard in global internet governance debates. Those are just three examples.

However, the reality is that we can’t achieve a trusted internet until everyone has fast, affordable, reliable broadband. This is why CIRA’s Community Investment Program has made internet infrastructure investments a priority. It’s also why our Internet Performance Test has the power to help Canadians, Canadian governments and organizations understand the state of that infrastructure’s performance—today and in the future.

About the author
Tanya O'Callaghan

Tanya is CIRA’s Vice-president, Community Investment, Policy and Advocacy. A former journalist, Tanya has worked in the not-for-profit sector for nearly 20 years and currently leads CIRA’s community investment, policy and advocacy group. She is also a founding member of the multi-stakeholder committee behind the Canadian Internet Governance Forum and is a frequent speaker and moderator on a range of communications and digital issues.