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Federal budget 2014: Rural Internet boost is nowhere near enough

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As far as federal budgets go, this one had some positive news for rural users hoping for better and faster high-speed Internet access. But don’t be misled into believing it’s anything more than a stopgap move aimed at placating pre-election voter sentiment.

As part of his budget unveiled in Ottawa yesterday, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced $305 million in spending over the next five years to extend and enhance access to upwards of 280,000 households in rural and remote areas. While it’s a welcome nod toward resolving the age-old gap between online haves and have-nots, it’s hardly new, and it’s hardly enough to make up for over a decade of broken promises to level the broadband playing field.

Canadians who live outside urban areas have long had fewer options for high-speed Internet access. Traditional broadband technologies often aren’t available in these regions because population density doesn't justify the business case for investment. Existing regulatory frameworks don’t provide sufficient incentives for carriers to extend their mostly urban-centric cable and DSL networks further out.

Hard choices, broken promises

This leaves rural customers stuck choosing between dial-up access – perhaps acceptable in the text-based, circa mid-1990s commercial Internet, but woefully inadequate in today’s cloud- and multimedia-driven landscape – or satellite services. Although satellite access supports high-speed data transfers without having to build out a land-based network, it’s a non-starter for real-time collaborative use because of the built-in lag.

The just-announced investment takes over where earlier initiatives ended off. The Community Access Program, which provided affordable Internet access from public locations including schools, libraries and community centres, was axed in 2012. The Broadband Canada Program, a three-year, $225 million initiative to bring broadband Internet service to traditionally underserved regions, ended in 2012 and was not replaced.

In 2001, the federal government’s National Broadband Task Force committed to making high-speed Internet available in communities across the country within three years. It was a miserable failure: The CRTC’s 2013 Communications Monitoring Report concludes 15 per cent of rural homes lacked broadband access in 2012, while 100 per cent of urban homes could access high-speed Internet if they so wished.

Although it’s encouraging to see the federal government keep rural broadband access on the national radar, don’t be fooled into believing this is anything more than a thinned-out treat designed to keep a relatively small block of voters relatively happy while election planners begin stuffing next year’s election-promise goodie bag.

Falling behind

Other countries are already spending orders of magnitude more than we are to close their own respective digital gaps. The U.S. launched its National Broadband Plan – with cost estimates ranging as high as $350 billion – in 2010 to deliver 100 megabit-per-second access to 100 million homes by 2020. Australia, which faces similar geographical and population density challenges, spent $43 billion on its national broadband initiative. The U.K. invested over 1.9 billion pounds to boost rural access speeds. Canada’s plan, in comparison will spend barely $60 million per year, with an ultimate goal of only 5 mbps.

Yesterday’s commitment actually reduces spending compared to the earlier, now-extinct programs, and it comes two years after those programs were allowed to die without identified follow-ons. It fails to address the fact that 13 years after promising to close the digital divide, it’s still as gnawingly wide as it’s always been. Changes to the rules around wireless spectrum – namely compelling carriers to use it or lose it – could bring some long-term improvement, but Canada still lacks a comprehensive plan.

Ottawa can do better, and wherever they live, Canadians should keep that in mind as the inevitable pre-election spending promises begin to fly. Our future competitiveness against countries that have already figured out how to deliver affordable broadband access to all citizens regardless of geography depends on it.

Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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