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Trudeau's internet funds will be difficult to coordinate: experts

Shruti Shekar
·Telecom & Tech Reporter
·4 min read
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic outside his residence at Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Ontario, on Thursday, June 18, 2020. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press via AP)
The government wants to connect 100 per cent of Canadians to high-speed internet by 2030. REUTERS

Experts say Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government is going to have a challenging time coordinating between different departments to roll out funding for broadband internet projects as the Canadian Infrastructure Bank (CIB) announced $2 billion to connect Canadians.

Trudeau, with Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna, and Michael Sabia, chair of the board of the CIB, announced Thursday the $10 billion CIB’s growth plan in an effort to support Canada’s COVID-19 economic recovery.

The additional $1 billion from the CIB that was announced in the 2019 budget, will connect about 750,000 homes and small businesses to broadband services in “underserved communities,” over the next three years. Sabia said funds from today’s announcement will be rolled out by the end of 2020.

John Lawford, executive director and general counsel of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, said in an interview that while the announcement is positive, it is more of a political move under the “excuse of COVID.”

“I haven’t seen a coordinated government thing. This is yet another sort of political layer of funding on top of all the other political layers of funding on top of the very inadequate CRTC fund,” Lawford said.

Since 2016, the government has announced various funds to help connect more Canadians to broadband services. This includes the $585 million Connect to Innovate program administered through the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Ministry; the $1.7 billion Universal Broadband Fund administered through the Rural Economic Development Ministry; and $2 billion that would be brought in through private investment announced in the 2019 budget.

The CRTC also announced its own $750M Broadband Fund in late 2016.

In the 2019 budget, the government pledged to connect 100 per cent of Canadians to broadband internet services by 2030.

“I just find this a lot of band-aids, and [today’s announcement] is another band-aid, it’ll probably get some people connected fast, but it’ll be from an incumbent and it will be if they really want to do it,” Lawford said.

A lot of the spending from today’s announcement isn’t new money, but money that was allocated from the $35 billion (spent over 10 years) previously announced in the 2017 budget.

Accountability will be hard to track if projects are getting completed

Ramona Pringle, a tech expert and associate professor at Ryerson University, said that adding more money to roll out broadband services is good, but like Lawford added that the challenge will be to hold whoever is shelling out money accountable to ensure projects actually get completed.

“I think one of the traditional hurdles hasn’t necessarily been where the money is coming from, but who is doing the implementation of it and that the bottleneck is that the government relies on a small number of big telcos,” she said in an interview, adding that big companies are going to be looking at a return on investment.

Pringle said that if the government is going to give funding it should share details on how the money is going to be spent and where the money has to be allocated.

“Canada is a massive country with quite rugged terrain in many places, it’s a lot more expensive to get up to places in the north...the challenges there are even more complex,” she said. “So unless it’s specified...there’s going to be this trickle-down [where money] goes to projects that are more cost-effective.”

Dwayne Winseck, director of the Canadian Media Concentration Research Project, said in an interview that funding from so many departments will result in a lack of coordination.

“The whole idea now becomes a coordinated problem. You lack an overall integrated approach and a kind of unified vision,” he said.

Winseck was also concerned about who the money will go to for connecting Canadians.

“It raises questions about whether this is going to then be in favour of the incumbents and if that’s going to be a source of another problem that it’s at odds with the other principles underlying ISED’s approach which is competition and affordability,” he said, adding he was particularly concerned that Sabia was the former CEO of BCE from 2002 to 2008.

Because all of the programs have different timelines, Winseck cautioned that the government will have to make sure that the right projects get the green light and that projects that get funding from different pots will be completed in the allotted timeframe.

“We’ve got different time horizons, different ministries, different buckets of funds, and that’s going to make it really hard to track and maintain accountability of these programs so that we know whether or not what’s been promised is actually been accomplished,” he said.

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