To thrive, not merely survive, during the pandemic takes more than hand washing and physical distancing. It requires bandwidth. Not all of us who are fortunate enough to have a job and the skills necessary to work from home can do so. Many of us simply do not have the online capacity to confidently work, study, or even entertain ourselves from home.

Street view with green railway of public transport in Reims city in Champagne-Ardenne region of France

In May, Steve Arnold, the mayor of St. Clair Township in southwestern Ontario, told federal politicians on the House of Commons Industry Committee (via a teleconference call) that downloads of large files such as movies and homework can take two hours to two days for residents in his region. “It’s very frustrating for us,” he said by way of understatement. Mayor Arnold’s community is far from unique.

According to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, only 40 percent of Canadian households have access to high-speed broadband. Much of the other broadband-challenged 60 percent live in rural areas and remote regions of Canada. The Canadian Internet Registration Authority reported that in April this year the download speeds for rural residents were 12 times slower than those for urban Canadians.

This is a huge problem. As we self-quarantined, we found our very existence thrust onto the internet virtually overnight, not only for education and work but for healthcare and shopping and even socializing. The pandemic has laid bare the enormity of the gap between urban dwellers and rural residents, with some spending hours, perhaps days, trying to do something as simple as download a movie from Netflix. This is called the “digital divide.” 

It’s a divide that could grow into a Grand Canyon of disparity as we move to 5G services. Citizens without access to high speed internet are deprived, not just of opportunity, but of elements of life we consider basic human rights, such as education, healthcare, and socialization. That makes high speed internet a basic human right. The federal government has a target date of 2030 for national connectivity but is under pressure to speed that up.

We all need to understand that the COVID-19 pandemic is not changing the world. It is merely, though drastically, accelerating the change that already has been coming at us. Many of those changes will be permanent and pose new challenges for our communities. They will also offer incredible opportunities, if we have broadband connectivity and are prepared to embrace the change. If your community has not already identified this as a top infrastructure priority, and begun lobbying efforts, then you risk writing yourself out of a future.

Look at the rise of autonomous electric vehicles, for example. They promise to be the most stunning visual representation of the way our communities will change in the future. Imagine streets transforming into welcoming avenues with wider sidewalks, more trees and greater greenspace. Streets will evolve from parking spaces to social spaces. With the advent of self-driving electric vehicles and robotaxis those streetscapes can evolve to make communities more livable for people. How will your community evolve to take advantage of such a change that is less than 15 years away?

We all must evolve. Call it the Darwinian theory of community survival.

When the pandemic made in-person shopping impossible, businesses evolved and expanded online. Chambers of commerce and businesses are now working harder to inform local consumers of the range of goods and services available at local shops both online and in bricks-and-mortar stores. That change is powerful. Your community should be working hard to make the local-shopping-online mindset permanent.

Other truths are now self-evident. The pandemic has demonstrated the powerful and negative impact we have on our environment but also how quickly we can reverse the effects. We drove our cars significantly less during the pandemic. Satellite images have shown massive and rapid reductions in air pollution in just a few months. People living near the Himalayas can see the mountains clearly for the first time in decades. Less driving, and more electric vehicles, can make those environmental improvements permanent. But it is more than that.

At the heart of it, the pandemic has taught us just how important our community is to the quality of our lives. You can buy merchandise from Amazon, but Amazon doesn’t check in to see if you are okay, as neighbours have done during the pandemic. Amazon can deliver groceries to your house, but most of its employees don’t live in your community or shop in local businesses or help the local economy. Our “all-delivery” economy is not going to go away. It is inevitable, but our future must also include “all-local” whenever possible. Our local businesses need to be online to make “all-local” possible.

Successful communities will learn to merge “online” and “community” successfully. Connectivity is crucial. Connected communities will evolve, embrace the future, and become the places where people want to live now — and for generations to come.