By Ahmar Khan
If you still think video games and streaming are all just for fun, you’re missing the bigger picture. Canada’s video game industry contributed $3.7 billion to the economy in 2017 and is a key driver of a changing economic and social culture. Following the emergence of COVID-19, the Entertainment Software Association of Canada found that Canadians increased their frequency of video gameplay as a way to stay connected and entertained during lockdown.
Yet, as the next generation of console gaming systems was rolling out to Canadians eager to experience the new age of online gaming, many people outside big cities were having issues with online connectivity. As of 2018, only about 41 per cent of rural households and 31 per cent of Indigenous reserves had access to high-speed internet. As COVID-19 forced many schools to shift to online learning, this disparity became even starker. And unless it is addressed, it could have a lasting negative impact on the ability of gamers in these communities to access a growing economic opportunity: the chance to play for a living.
Over the past decade, professional gaming has become a legitimate career path. On platforms like Twitch, Facebook and YouTube, players can use their skills to boost their follower and subscriber counts and grow businesses based on subscriptions, donations and influencer marketing. According to Twitch, the largest video-game streaming service in the world, approximately two million people are watching streams on the Twitch platform at any given time. Initially focused on video games, the platform has expanded to allow users to stream anything: live music performances, card-pack openings, painting tutorials, stand-up comedy and more. Tens of thousands of steamers are a part of the Twitch Partner program, which allows them to monetize their channels with ads, subscriptions and merchandise sales.
For most people living in large cities, getting online and tapping into the necessary bandwidth speeds is easy. Yet a significant part of what we call Canada remains profoundly underserved, stuck in a kind of broadband black hole. At present, the internet speeds needed to deliver high-quality video-game streaming are simply non-existent in the majority of rural Canada.
Consider the numbers. An active online gaming stream requires users to have access to upload speeds between 3 and 6 Mbps. Much of rural Canada has internet infrastructure that struggles to, or is incapable of, providing these speeds. According to data released by the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), measurements taken between May 2019 and April 2020 show that upload speeds in rural Canada are, “on average, ten times slower than urban speeds.” Moreover, during the COVID-19 pandemic, median speeds for rural users have continued to fall, while urban users have found themselves with new options for faster, more reliable connections.
“The data we released shows a massive gap between the speeds that rural and urban Canadians are receiving—a gap that feels even larger in light of widespread social distancing and working from home,” says a statement from Dave Chiswell, Vice-President of Product for the CIRA. The group is urging the federal government to expedite the rollout of additional broadband funding for rural and underserved communities.
In November 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau launched the $1.75 billion dollar Universal Broadband Fund, and announced that the government is on track to connect 98 per cent of Canadians to high-speed internet by 2026. As part of efforts to improve access to high-speed internet in rural areas, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada has given billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX regulatory approval to begin operations of its Starlink Constellation satellite network in Canada. The company has already sent out beta invites to interested Canadians, as consumer enthusiasm around the product grows following successful results in rural areas of the United States.
Starlink’s arrival in Canada could help some gamers living in areas with shoddy internet get online to showcase their talents in a booming industry. Until then, thousands of people across the country will be left isolated on the wrong side of the great digital divide.