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Targeted policy needed to ensure government invests in rural high-speed internet

Shruti Shekar
Telecom & Tech Reporter
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Telecom experts welcome the federal government’s plan to accelerate investments in high-speed internet for remote and rural areas in Canada but say there needs to be stronger “political will” to ensure that action is taken. 

Rural Economic Development Minister Maryam Monsef said the government is working “as quickly as we can” to fast track projects to ensure Canadians in remote locations are connected to internet services, as reported by the Globe and Mail. Monsef indicated that the government is also planning to launch a website that will help track the completion of broadband projects. 

The aim of the website is to offer more accountability for projects that are currently in motion. 

The federal government hasn’t yet announced how it plans to accelerate the rural internet program.

John Lawford, executive director and general counsel of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, said in an interview that the government should put in place policy that will ensure these projects actually get completed. 

“It takes political will to say to Bell or Telus, okay ‘here’s your role, here’s how much [the government] is willing to pay for it and here’s what will happen if you don’t help.’ We just never get to that point because it gets mired in certain hearings to try and figure out how it will work,” Lawford said. 

“And no government wants to take the political hit for facing down the telecos, which is what we need to do in Canada...I don’t know if this [pandemic] will give them the political will to do that.”

Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government announced $1.7 billion in funding in budget 2019 to connect 100 per cent of Canadians to high-speed internet by 2030. This would be done through the Connectivity Strategy that would build on existing investments previously announced.

Lawford said the biggest challenge facing the government is connecting the last chunk of Canadians, which he says will never happen unless policy is put in place to have telecom carriers connect the rural areas first. 

“You can’t keep saying we’ll do the last five per cent, the last two per cent in the future. You can change the policy and say ‘we’re serving the hardest people first,’” he said. 

“So if the minister says she’s going to speed it up, good luck, because we’ve got regulatory mess, we’ve got lack of political will and we’ve got strong financially oriented private companies.”

Internet performance test could help expedite process

Spencer Callaghan, communications and content manager at the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, said that the 2030 target the government had is not sustainable anymore when the coronavirus has proved the internet is “the lifeblood of our economy.”

“The number one challenge the government is facing is, and we are trying to help, trying to identify those projects and communities where the need is the greatest,” he said.

CIRA recently launched the internet performance test which lets Canadians test their internet speed and will submit responses to the government.

“Our goal is to help the government identify the areas that could use some expediting of their projects,” he said.

Marc Choma, a Bell spokesperson, said in an email that the carrier is investing in its networks to “close the gap on the remaining” 14 per cent of Canadians that are without internet services. 

As part of Bell’s Wireless Home Internet program, the carrier has connected 137,000 Canadians in April and plans to reach one million rural homes in the future.

“There will always be parts of the country where government funding will be needed,” Choma said. “We’ve partnered with governments across the country on broadband initiatives and area ready and willing to continue doing so.”

Brandi Rees, a spokesperson for Telus, said in an email that the carrier was also expanding and “densifying its rural coverage” to support Canadians. 

“Connecting rural communities requires the joint effort and investment from facilities-based carriers and governments to ensure that all Canadians have access to coverage, speed, and reliability they deserve,” Rees said. 

A Rogers spokesperson said in an email that the carrier has made suggestions to the federal government on how to reach more communities to offer better access to internet services. 

“We know how important it is for Canadians to have to access to high-speed Internet, no matter where they live, and that’s why it’s critical that governments and network builders work together to create meaningful policy solutions that deliver high quality broadband networks across both rural and urban communities,” Rogers said. 

Ben Klass, a telecom expert and PhD student at Carleton University, said in an interview that the biggest challenge for the government will be to ensure the monies put into projects are accounted for and put towards those that have been designed specifically for the geographic location it is intended. 

“Twelve years ago [the government] gave out a bunch of money, which is good...but once the money is out there it doesn’t necessarily translate into the delivery of adequate service,” he said. 

“One of the previous challenges has been following up to make sure that the money is being put into the ground in a way that’s going to provide sustainable benefit.”

Klass also added that the time to wait around for better technology is over and that carriers should use resources they have now to get the rest of Canada connected.

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