Last week’s Speech from the Throne included many ambitious promises for supporting Canadians as they transition through COVID-19 and adapt to the needs of a 21st Century digital economy. From Cybera’s perspective, one of the more interesting goals mentioned in the speech related to improving connectivity in the country: “The Government will accelerate the connectivity timelines and ambitions of the Universal Broadband Fund to ensure that all Canadians, no matter where they live, have access to high-speed internet."
For background, in 2019, the federal government committed $6 billion to invest in rural broadband infrastructure, with the goal of reaching 100% access to 50 Mbps upload / 10 Mbps download speeds — across the country — by 2030. Part of this commitment included $1.7 billion for a new Universal Broadband Fund, which would fund projects to build or upgrade infrastructure that provide “fixed and mobile wireless broadband Internet access services in eligible underserved areas of Canada.”
Unfortunately, this fund has yet to become available to applications, outside of a few regions in the country. This is despite Rural Economic Development Minister Maryam Monsef saying this past June it would be open "in the coming days.” And this is also despite the overwhelming need for internet connectivity across the country that this pandemic has only heightened.
According to the CRTC, nearly 86% of Canadian households currently have access to the 50/10 level of service, but in rural areas, only 40% do. And in First Nations communities, it's estimated that just 30% of households have access to the minimum recommended speed.
As I mentioned last weekend in a Global Edmonton interview covering the Throne Speech commitments, we need more action from the federal government, now. A promise to accelerate timelines is a good start, but these investments should have been made months (if not years) ago.
Internet access is a basic right
We also need more ambitious targets. Cybera has long-argued that a goal of 50 Mbps upload / 10 Mbps download is too low. You can barely run a video meeting on a 50 Mbps connection. How can we expect people to achieve anything innovative or meaningful online in 10 years’ time, if the minimum requirement for connectivity doesn’t match our current needs?
We also need to change the national regulatory approach to affordable broadband. The current model relies on telcos to build and operate this vital infrastructure. Generally, there are no viable business models that support building connectivity out to remote towns or sparsely populated regions. As long as this model continues, hundreds of thousands of Canadians will go without the connectivity needed to adequately work or learn online, access web-based banking, and utilize digital government services.
Broadband connectivity needs to be seen as a basic right.
Next steps for Alberta
In the urban areas of Alberta, there are, on average, eight companies that offer high-speed internet to residents. In rural Alberta, there are often only two (or one) Internet Service Providers to choose from. This lack of competition is another reason for the prevalence of expensive and/or poorer quality internet services in rural areas.
The Government of Alberta has, for years, been developing a provincial broadband strategy to highlight the specific needs and solutions for our province. This is a great opportunity for our provincial government to now release their plan for Alberta. A well-framed provincial broadband strategy could be used to coordinate the implementation of the Universal Broadband Fund, and position Alberta to make the best use of these available investments.
The need is urgent
Numerous studies — such as one recently published by the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board — have shown that investing in reliable broadband connections will lead to growth in the overall GDP of the community.
But more than that, this crisis has shown how necessary internet now is for all Canadians to lead normal lives. No child, no matter where they live, should be left without access to education. No adult should be unable to run an online business. This is an urgent problem that demands an urgent solution.
It’s been more than three years since the federal government set high-speed internet as a basic service objective. We need to take steps now to ensure that all Canadians, no matter where they live, are able to access this vital infrastructure.