The internet came, and then it went away again

Queensborough, we have an internet problem. Again.

But then, if you live in the Queensborough area, I’m pretty sure you know that. Why? Because not long ago I asked you, and you answered. Boy, did you answer.

Some good news about this internet problem, however, is that I have put my journalistic skills to use, made some inquiries, and now have a suggested plan of action. It does require something from you, my dear Queensborough reader, but only this: that you pick up your phone and call our local internet provider. Yes, you know the one:

Xplornet logo

For the benefit of non-Queensborough readers, let me provide some background on all this. And then I’ll share what I’ve learned about what can be done.

Longtime readers of Meanwhile, at the Manse may recall my many posts on the topic of slow to non-existent internet from the early years Raymond and I spent here in Queensborough. Between our purchase of the Manse in January 2012 and a magical day in March 2015 (more on that in just a bit), our internet situation was absolutely dire. The signal was impossibly slow; streaming services such as Netflix were out of the question; and the incredibly lame service that we had was still costing us $100 a month. (You can read some of my posts on the topic here and here and here.) Many were the evenings when the frustration of the endless hours it took to do a simple internet thing like putting up a blog post for you all to read had me practically in tears.

But then on March 19, 2015, the internet came to the Manse! Xplornet Communications, the company tasked with providing high-speed internet to rural Eastern Ontario, had just erected a tower on DeClair Road a bit east of Queensborough. On that magical Thursday in March, a technician came to the Manse to install a setup allowing us to connect to the tower. As you can read in my excited post about it here, and an even more exuberant followup a month later, we suddenly had endless and gloriously fast internet, for about the same price we’d been paying for the previous ghastly setup. We could watch Netflix! Raymond could watch his beloved Boston Red Sox games, streamed in high definition! I could do blog posts quickly and without tears! It was wonderful!

And it wasn’t just us: suddenly all of Queensborough (with exception of one household that had too many trees between it and the DeClair Road tower) had access to lightning-fast internet. Basically, it changed our lives – forever, we thought.

Alas, “forever” turned out to be about three years.

Since this past spring, internet in Queensborough has once again been terrible. Not so much in the daytime, mind you; but in the evening, when everyone’s home and online – Facebook, Netflix, Raymond watching his Red Sox via the Major League Baseball streaming app – it slows to a crawl at best and a complete freeze a great deal of the time. Here, let me show you with a little video of the action – actually inaction, due to the internet freeze – during a Red Sox-Tampa Bay Rays game the other night. The only “action” you’ll see until the freeze finally lets up is the ever-circling “loading” wheel – appropriately named (not by me) “the spinning wheel of death”:

These freezes happen dozens of times during every game. Lately, Raymond’s just given up trying to watch most evenings. And while that’s causing him so much grief, I’m usually trying to compose emails or blog posts or some such, and experiencing exactly the same thing – freeze after freeze, and more of the spinning wheel of death. The situation is every bit as frustrating as it was pre-2015. And we’re paying more than $100 a month for this?

About 10 days ago, I decided I’d had enough. It was time for action.

Step 1 was to get confirmation of how bad, and how widespread, the problem is. I already knew from a couple of conversations I’d had with neighbours that we are not the only household experiencing suddenly terrible internet. I felt quite certain that all of Queensborough was having the same problem – doubtless because more families have moved to the area in recent times, and because they (and everybody else) are using the internet more than ever. My educated guess was that the DeClair Road tower could no longer meet internet demand from Queensborough. But I needed some ammunition for Step 2, and so I sent out a message via social media outlining our no-internet-in-the-evenings situation and asking my fellow Queensborough-area residents to tell me if the same thing was happening to them. Which they did.

Facebook post on slow internet

The Facebook post in which I asked residents of our area whether they are experiencing the same internet problems as we are here at the Manse. The replies came thick and fast, and confirmed that we have a Queensborough-wide problem.

“I have the exact same experience and complaint, Katherine,” wrote one person.

“We had tons of issues in the last year with the internet service,” wrote another.

“Same issue,” said several others.

“I almost curse them all the time now,” wrote someone who happens to be a devout Christian. Wow!

Armed with confirmation that the problem is Queensborough-wide, I moved on to Step 2, which was to call Xplornet. Two hours on the phone later, I had a much-reduced internet bill and quite a bit of information. Which I now want to share with my fellow slow-internet sufferers.

The first department I got was customer service. I explained to the pleasant woman who took my call (after about 45 minutes on hold) about how all of Queensborough was experiencing the same internet problems, that the tower that services us must be beyond its capacity, and that we’re all pretty darn frustrated. She told me that:

  • Additional panels can be put onto a tower to resolve the problem of overload (though she stressed that this technical end of things was not her area of expertise).
  • All calls about such problems are logged and actively monitored by Xplornet, and if there is a sudden influx of calls of complaint from one particular area, there’s more likely to be action to resolve the problem. Which is why, Queensborough people, you should call! The number (which you can find on your bill) is 1-866-841-6001.

Anyway, back to my call. The last thing the customer-service rep did was: cut my monthly internet bill by $30! The reduction is good for the next six months, and if service hasn’t improved at the end of that time, it will be renewed.

And when I politely but persistently reminded her that I’d already paid more than $100 a month for several months’ worth of terrible service, she also gave me a rebate of one month’s charge. The next bill arrived a few days later, and because of all the reductions, I ended up with something even better than a zero balance: a credit of about $25.

So: did I mention that you should make that call? That number again is 1-866-841-6001. (But make sure you have a cup of coffee and something to read in hand, to get you through the wait time to speak to an agent.)

So then my helpful customer-service rep transferred me over to Xplornet’s technical department, where I had a long and enlightening chat with a member of the technical team. Once again I told my whole story, including the fact that all of Queensborough is experiencing the same problem.

He told me that towers, including the DeClair Road one, are being upgraded with what’s called an overlay, to add capacity. He noted – and I know this is true – that these upgrades can’t be done at the drop of a hat; there are licensing issues involved that take time. But he did confirm that the work “is under way.” When I asked when it would be completed, he said Xplornet does not give out end dates for such projects, but said he suspects it’ll be mid to late September at the latest – if only because the company doesn’t want its workers up on the towers when bad weather comes.

When I told him about the customer-service rep’s advice to urge people to call about the problem, he agreed that a bunch of calls from our area might well get the timeline for the tower work bumped up. So people! Call! 1-866-841-6001. And please tell them, as I did, that the problem you’re experiencing is shared by everyone in our area. This definitely adds oomph to the complaint, and avoids an agent trying to solve a (probably nonexistent) problem with your own personal setup.

Oh, and a bit more information I got: for those of you who get your internet via Xplornet satellite rather than from the DeClair Road tower, but are experiencing the same problem with painfully slow loading times: it’s again because of capacity issues. Demand on the satellite signal is growing very quickly, just like demand on the towers. I suggest you too call to let the company know about the problem, and inquire what can be done about reducing your bill until the signal comes up to snuff.

Internet announcement

The posting on Hastings-Lennox and Addington MP Mike Bossio’s website about the plan to bring the internet via fibre-optic cable to our area. The announcement was made at the Signal Brewery in Corbyville (once the site of the famous Corby Distillery), and on hand were (from left) Signal owner Richard Courneyea, Bay of Quinte MP Neil Ellis, Navdeep Bains, the federal minister of innovation, science and economic development, Jill Raycroft of the Belleville Chamber of Commerce, MP Mike Bossio, and Xplornet chief executive officer Allison Lenehan.

FibreRoute

The network of fibre-optic cables that will bring super-duper internet to our area within a couple of years – or at least, that’s the promise. (Photo via lennox-addington.on.ca; click to enlarge)

Now, in the slightly longer term there is some good news for us all. Last month, our MP, Mike Bossio (a schoolmate of mine in Madoc back in the days when I was growing up in this area), announced a partnership between the federal government and Xplornet to improve high-speed internet in Eastern Ontario using an existing network of fibre-optic cables. You can read about it here, and you’ll see on the map, as well as in the news story, that our entire area – the Municipality of Tweed, of which Queensborough is a part, and neighbouring Madoc Township, which is Queensborough-adjacent – are included. This is fantastic!

The only down side is that this new and improved service won’t be up and running until 2020. And yes, I know we’re already more than halfway through 2018, but a year and a half is a long time to deal with frozen-screen baseball games. Just ask Raymond.

So until then? Call Xplornet. Be polite but persistent. We had great internet for one brief shining moment. (Okay, it lasted three glorious years). We need to get it back!

In which the yellow peril of the plant world shows up

Our wild parsnip

Looks kind of pretty, doesn’t it? But people, you do not want to discover this plant on your property. Unfortunately, I did.

Among the many things that urban dwellers (such as I once was) rarely or never have to think about are invasive plants. By this I mean flora that are a) non-native and therefore shouldn’t be growing where they are; or b) dangerous; or c) both of the above. Wild parsnip is most assuredly both of the above.

Here in Eastern Ontario, we’ve been hearing about the threat of wild parsnip for the past number of years – pretty much ever since Raymond and I bought the Manse in 2012, and very possibly before that. Here’s the lowdown on it, courtesy of the website Ontario’s Invading Species Awareness Program, run by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters:

Wild parsnip is an invasive plant native to Europe and Asia. It was [probably] brought to North America by European settlers, who grew it for its edible root. Since its introduction, wild parsnip has escaped from cultivated gardens and spread across the continent. Wild parsnip roots are edible, but the sap of the plant can cause severe burns … Wild parsnip, which is also known as poison parsnip, is a member of the carrot/parsley family. It typically grows a low, spindly rosette of leaves in the first year while the root develops. In the second year it flowers on a tall stalk and then dies. The plant can form dense stands and spreads quickly in disturbed areas such as abandoned yards, waste dumps, meadows, open fields, roadsides and railway embankments. Its seeds are easily dispersed by wind and water, and on mowing or other equipment. Like giant hogweed and other members of the carrot family, it produces sap containing chemicals that can cause human skin to react to sunlight, resulting in intense burns, rashes or blisters.

In North America, scattered wild parsnip populations are found from British Columbia to California, and from Ontario to Florida. It has been reported in all provinces and territories of Canada except Nunavut. The plant is currently found throughout eastern and southern Ontario, and researchers believe it is spreading from east to west across the province.

Lovely, huh? Apparently if you manage to get yourself into a patch of wild parsnip, the effect on your skin can make poison ivy look like a picnic. (Though I have heard anecdotally from people around Queensborough that the poisonous sap affects some people more than others, and some people not at all. I do not know if this is scientifically true, or just a well-meaning attempt to downplay the problem.)

Once the wild-parsnip problem penetrated my consciousness a few years ago, thanks to awareness campaigns by the likes of the anglers and hunters federation and, of course, the provincial government, I quickly became aware of the extent of it. In our area, wild parsnip is, not to put too fine a point on it, everywhere. Along the roads, in ditches, at the edge of wooded areas – and, most worrisomely to me, alongside sidewalks right here in Queensborough. Here, take a look:

Wild parsnip alongside the sidewalk

Just look at all the wild parsnip reaching out across a sidewalk in Queensborough. This is not great for people who might be using that sidewalk – especially kids – and brushing up against the noxious plant.

In a village where there are a lot of children running and skipping and riding their bikes around – which is a wonderful thing – do we really want our sidewalks lined with a plant that can cause very unpleasant damage to tender young skin? I think not. But here’s the thing: wild parsnip is a bugger (excuse my language) to get rid of. As I discovered first-hand a month or so ago.

I was out pacing the acreage of the Manse one perfect summer morning, admiring the work I’d done in a shade garden in one corner and nearby, against the fence on the property’s southern edge, my newly installed asparagus plant. Suddenly I noticed another plant along that same fenceline: tall, with attractive yellow flowers. Attractive it may have been, but it was indisputably wild parsnip, the seeds that created it doubtless having been borne by the wind from one of the hundreds of other such plants growing around here. Yikes!

I looked up the drill on removing wild parsnip from your property, as explained by the natural-resources ministry:

Wear protective clothing, including waterproof gloves, long-sleeved shirts, pants and eye protection. A disposable spray suit over your normal clothing provides the best protection. Spray suits are commercial-grade waterproof coveralls. After working around the plant, remove your protective clothing carefully to avoid transferring any sap from your clothing onto your skin. Wash your rubber gloves with soap and water, then take off your spray suit or outer clothing. Wash your rubber gloves again and then take them off. Finally, take off your protective eye wear. Put non-disposable clothing in the laundry and wash yourself immediately with soap and water.

“Dear god,” I thought to myself. “Do I really have to do this?”

Yes, I did. But a spray suit? To get rid of one plant? That was a bit much. Instead, on a day of blazing sun with the temperature in the 30-degree range (that’s high 80s to you Fahrenheit people), I donned jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, socks and shoes, garden gloves and eye protectors. I grabbed the pointy garden shovel that Raymond found at a yard sale a while back, and attacked our wild parsnip plant.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I put on all that unseasonal clothing, I checked the rest of the fenceline to see if there were more wild parsnip plants. The bad news: I found another one. The good news: that was all – just two in total. And as it happened, the second plant was on the other side of the fence that divides the Manse property from the lovely one of our gardening-wiz neighbours, Brian and Sylvia. I figured that since I was going to be tackling our plant, I might as well offer to tackle theirs too – no sense all of us having to get all kitted out with protective gear – so I called them up, explained my discovery, and offered to dig it up. They appreciatively accepted the offer, and in return said they would look after the disposal of both plants. Because get this: you can’t toss a dug-up wild-parsnip plant just anywhere; the disposal is almost as much of a pain in the rear as is the digging-up of the thing. Here’s what the natural-resources ministry has to say about that:

DO NOT burn or compost wild parsnip plants that have been cut down or dug up. If possible, leave the stems to dry out completely at the site. Carefully dispose of plant material in black plastic bags and leave in direct sun for a week or more. Contact your municipality to determine if the bagged plants can be sent to your local landfill site.

Man, this plant is just bad news from first to last.

Anyway.

Wearing my middle-of-winter attire and armed with my trusty shovel, I successfully dug up the wild parsnip plant that was on our side of the fence, and then the wild-parsnip plant that was on Brian and Sylvia’s side. Here’s the specimen from our side, lying on the ground, root and all:

Pulled-out wild parsnip

And here’s Brian and Sylvia’s:

Pulled-out wild parsnip at Brian and Sylvia's

You can’t see it in my photo (I was staying well away, needless to say), but it had a very impressively sized root. It was quite the job to get them both out, and I was proud of myself at the end. And very grateful to Brian and Sylvia for agreeing to dispose of them.

I’m also proud of myself for discovering the plants before there were many of them, and for doing the right thing in getting rid of them. When you drive along our local roads and see the thousands of wild-parsnip plants everywhere, it’s discouraging. Given that wild parsnip is officially listed as a noxious weed in Ontario, municipalities should probably enact bylaws requiring property-owners to get rid of any plants that may show up on their land; but with the rather overwhelming extent of the problem and the daunting task of digging up and disposing of the weeds properly, I can see why they don’t. How would you ever police or enforce such a bylaw, when the problem is so out of control?

However. I am very happy to report that there are zero wild-parsnip plants growing on the Manse property, and if any should show up in future, they will be dealt with. If we all tried to do this, it would be a good thing.

And then all we’d have to worry about would be dog-strangling vine. Oh dear. It’s always something.

A very useful birthday present

Herb My friend and neighbour from just east of Queensborough, Herb Holgate – source of one of the most useful birthday gifts I have ever received.

Regular readers will doubtless recall that last week’s instalment of Meanwhile, at the Manse, had a birthday theme: it was marking the significant birthday of my very patient husband, Raymond. And thank you so much (from both of us) to all of you who responded with cheery birthday wishes for Raymond! Now, before we get away from birthdays entirely, I want to tell you about something that happened a few weeks earlier in July – on my birthday, as it happened.

I’ll preface the story by telling you that Raymond and I have taken to starting our days with a brisk hour-long walk. It’s not the ultimate fitness regimen, but it’s significantly better than nothing on the good-for-you scale. And it’s a pleasant way to take in the sights and sounds – a hawk diving for its prey, a marshland tree looking like something out of a Group of Seven painting – on the outskirts of Queensborough.

I’ll add a second preface by also mentioning that this summer has been a particularly bad one on the deer-fly front. If you’re an urban person and not too sure what a deer fly is, you can find a good explanation of it (along with its larger relative, the horse fly) here; but this summary from the Friends of Algonquin Park is as useful and to the point as any:

Deer flies and horse flies appear similar to large house flies, but they pack a strong bite. Unlike the sucking mouth parts of a mosquito, these insects have biting mouth parts that occasionally feel like they are “taking a chunk of skin” as a meal. Horse flies are relatively larger and darkly coloured, while deer flies are smaller and have colourful eyes and dark-patterned wings. Deer and horse flies are most abundant during the summer months and fly only during the day. Being visual feeders attracted to motion, these insects circle humans waiting for a good time to land and obtain a meal. Insect repellent is less effective against deer and horse flies than compared to other biting insect species.

If you’re a rural person like us here in Queensborough, you of course already knew all this. And you also know that the deer flies have been brutal in the summer of 2018.

deer fly

ttps://atthemanse.wordpress.com/2018/08/07/a-very-useful-birthday-present/deer-fly/” rel=”attachment wp-att-17872″> The deer fly – a major hindrance to enjoying a summer walk in the country. (Photo from the website of Hammerhead Kayak Supply)

[/caption]Now, if you noted the Algonquin Park people’s description of deer flies being “visual feeders attracted to motion,” you can doubtless imagine what happens when a person goes out for a walk on a midsummer day. It doesn’t take the deer flies any time at all to spot your motion and start circling your head and body, looking for a tasty spot to land and take a bite. Soon all its friends and relatives have showed up too. And the more your healthy exercise makes you sweat with the exertion, the more the deer flies are attracted to you. So you find yourself getting additional exercise by flailing your arms around in the hopeless effort to make them go away.

Okay, now for my story proper.

On the afternoon of my birthday in earlyish July, I was out for a walk on my own. I’d chosen the route that runs east from Queensborough, past the pretty and peaceful Greenwood Cemetery and Moore’s Corners, turning to return home when I’d reached the 2.5-kilometre mark at the intersection of Queensborough and DeClair roads. It was a hot day, and as I laboured up Holgate Hill – an informal name that comes from the family that for many years has lived at the top of it – the deer flies were buzzing all around me.

tthemanse.wordpress.com/2018/08/07/a-very-useful-birthday-present/walking-up-holgate-hill/” rel=”attachment wp-att-17869″> Here’s Raymond walking up Holgate Hill on Queensborough Road east of Queensborough.[/caption]At the

At the crest of the hill, my friend and neighbour Herb Holgate pulled out in his pickup truck, heading in the same direction I was. He recognized that my walk was a purposeful one and knew I couldn’t stop to chat, so he drove very slowly alongside me for a few minutes and we had an excellent catchup on each other’s news. Toward the end, he remarked on how my head was looking like the control tower for a deer-fly airport, and suggested a solution: clear plastic sticky strips that you attach to the back of a baseball cap. They work, he said, like those rolls of sticky tape you’d sometimes see suspended from farmhouse ceilings in my childhood, use to nab houseflies: the bugs are attracted to the tape, fly to it, get stuck, and die there. And possibly live specimens, seeing their immobilized friends and relatives dead or at least well on the way, will steer clear of you.

It might sound gruesome, but let me tell you, if you’ve ever been plagued by deer flies, you really wouldn’t mind being the death knell for some of them. Herb assured me that these sticky strips work, and told me I could get some at the farm-supply shop in Madoc (which is “town” for us). “Tell them I sent you,” he said genially. I was thrilled to learn of this new-to-me product, and told Herb that it was my birthday and the information he’d just given me was an excellent present. With a grin and a wave and a foot on the accelerator, he was on his way.

The next day I headed to Madoc and the farm-supply store. Now, as it happens there are two farm-supply stores in Madoc. I had leaped to the conclusion that the one Herb was referring to was the more rustic of the two; don’t ask me why. I told the friendly chap at the counter what I was looking for, and he told me that while the store had once stocked them, they unfortunately no longer do. Disappointing!

Why on earth I didn’t stop at the second farm-supply place to check I cannot explain. I just had it in my head that Herb had meant the first store, and that was that. Oh well.

But a little later that same day, when I was out working in the garden, Herb’s truck pulled up at the Manse. “Did you find those fly strips?” he asked me. I explained what had happened – and you can guess what comes next. He had meant the other farm-supply place. He also reinforced his story of the efficacy of the sticky strips by showing me the back of his own baseball cap. It was shocking in a thrilling way: stuck to the strip pinned to the cap were a good 20 or 30 dead deer flies. Wow!

Herb wasn’t going to leave it there. He hopped back into his truck, roared up the road to his house, and was back in just a few minutes with four of the sticky strips, two each for me and for Raymond. (Raymond is very popular with biting insects of all sorts, which means he has a lot more issues with the deer flies than even I do.)

What a great gift!

The deer flies are starting to tail off now so I’m holding my powder till next summer, but Raymond attached his sticky strip right away. And guess what? It works! Here, let me show you the evidence. The sticky strip is attached to Raymond’s walking cap of choice (you can tell by the sweat stains):

Queensborough cap front

Now take a look at the back of that cap:

Cap with deerflies

(I realize you’ve probably had to have experienced deer-fly misery at least once in your life to appreciate the wonderfulness of this photo.)

We can’t thank Herb enough for sharing his knowledge about the deer-fly strips, and especially for being kind enough to give us some to get us started. Here’s Raymond’s in action on a recent morning walk:

Deerfly catcher in action

I gotta tell you: to me that is a beautiful sight. Thank you, Herb!