Understanding Canada’s rural mobile network experience – July 2021

Canada's national mobile operators have launched 5G in multiple cities. However, many rural users will likely wait a few more years before they see a 5G connection. 

Opensignal's latest analysis shows that users' mobile experience in Canada varies greatly depending on proximity to urban areas demonstrating that a clear divide continues to exist between the urban and rural mobile network experience. Our rural users observed average download speeds less than half than those of our users in Large Population Centers (Large PCs) on all three carriers.

However, the rural-urban gap in 4G Availability has diminished across all three networks since our last rural analysis by 1.2-2.5 percentage points. Canadian rural users are able to spend at least 89.9% of their time connected to 4G. Conversely, the rural-urban gap in the Download Speed Experience has become more prominent on Bell and Rogers’ networks in Large PCs. 

For this analysis, we compared the mobile network experience of rural users, which make up almost 20% of the country's population, to urban users. We classified Canada's territory using the definition of Population Center (PC) as used by Statistics Canada — the country’s national statistics office — which also defines all areas outside population centers as rural areas.

Between Q1 2019 and Q1 2020, the proportion of time that 4G users spent connected to 4G — 4G Availability — increased significantly across all three operators in both rural and urban areas. By contrast, in Q1 2021, the 4G Availability in Canada’s urban population centers has not changed significantly, while our users in Rural Canada experienced small improvements, compared to Q1 2020. 

In Q1 2021, the  4G Availability in urban Canada ranges between 93.4% — on Rogers’ network in Small PCs — and 95.9% on Telus’ network in Large PCs.

In rural Canada, our users reported slight improvements in 4G Availability. Our users on Bell saw an improvement of 1.5 points, followed by our users on Telus and Rogers, who reported modest increases of 1.0 percentage points. With all these changes, the 4G Availability in rural Canada oscillates between 89.9% on Bell and 90.2% on Rogers. This means that 4G users in rural Canadian are able to connect to a 4G service almost nine out of 10 times, which is extremely impressive.

Overall, compared to Q1 2020, the 4G Availability gap between rural Canada and its urban population centers in Q1 2021 has shrunk between 1.2 and 2.5 percentage points depending on the operator and the size of PC. However, Opensignal users in rural Canada still have lower 4G Availability than those in Canada's more populated urban areas. Also, there is little difference in 4G Availability between small, medium and large PCs.


 

In our analysis of rural and urban Download Speed Experience, we saw a greater range of results than in 4G Availability. Rural Canadian users across all three networks saw their average download speeds improve between 0.3-0.6 Mbps, compared to Q1 2020. In Q1 2021, the Download Speed Experience in rural Canada ranged between 34.9 Mbps — on Rogers — and 48.4 Mbps — on Telus.

In Small PCs, the average download speeds of our Bell users improved by 2.6 Mbps to 67.3 Mbps, compared to Q1 2020, followed by our users on Rogers who reported an improvement of 0.7 Mbps with speeds averaging 48.4 Mbps. Meanwhile, their peers on Telus saw their download speeds decline from 72.9 to 70.9 Mbps.

In Medium PCs, our Bell and Telus users saw their Download Speed Experience were 7.7 Mbps and 1.5 Mbps lower compared to Q1 2020, respectively, while Rogers users saw a boost of 11.2 Mbps. In Large PCs, our Bell users saw their average speeds increase by 3.6 Mbps to 97.5 Mbps, while those on Rogers saw the most significant improvement of 11.8 Mbps with speeds averaging 74.9 Mbps. Conversely, our users on Telus' network saw a slight dip of 0.7 Mbps to 99.2 Mbps. 

As a result of these changes, the gap in Download Speed Experience between rural Canada and its Large PCs has accentuated further on Bell and Rogers, compared to our last report — by 2.9 Mbps on Bell and 11.3 Mbps on Rogers — while that on Telus has shrunk slightly by 1.0 Mbps. Although our Canadian users experience significantly large differences in Download Speed across rural and urban areas, our rural users, on average, had faster download speeds than what our users experience in several mature markets.

The mobile experience in Canada — both urban and rural — has improved drastically over the years and, on average, is
significantly higher than in many other countries globally. However, Opensignal's analysis shows that the urban/rural divide in the mobile experience continues to exist in the country. While the operators and government have been addressing this issue, it is evident that there is more to be done to remove the rural-urban gap.