Feds to speed up plan to improve rural Internet access

WEST CARLETON – The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a big, fat spotlight on the issue of lacking rural high-speed Internet service.

With more people stuck inside due to state of emergency orders, its easy to recognize the importance of high-speed Internet service, even as a tool to get essential information. Because of this, the Liberal government is accelerating its strategy to increase high-speed broadband coverage in rural Canada.

A spokesperson for Rural Economic Development Minister Maryam Monsef said the government is consulting with telecommunication providers, rural municipalities and others about how best to move up plans to improve access to high-speed Internet in rural and remote communities.

“The current crisis has reinforced the fact that high-speed Internet access is no longer a luxury,” Marie-Pier Baril released in a statement.

It’s still unclear how the initiative would work, but Monsef’s offices says “all options are currently on the table.”

“While timelines are being worked out, we recognize the urgency and we recognize this is also a big part of supporting our economy post-pandemic,” Baril said.

On Thursday April 30, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains told a parliamentary committee that Monsef is expected to bring forward solutions soon.

The when is still the major question.

With countless more Canadians, young and old, now browsing from home at all hours, the pandemic’s stay-at-home measures have been testing bandwidth limits and telephone network capacity. The pandemic also has highlighted Canadians’ unequal access to high-speed service.

In rural areas, CRTC data suggest as few as 40.8 per cent of Canadian households have access to high-speed broadband.

Laura Tribe is executive director of OpenMedia, a non-profit which has been calling for a national broadband strategy for years. She said unequal access to high-speed puts some families and children at a disadvantage.

“It is no longer acceptable to view the internet as a luxury,” Tribe released in a statement. “It is access to health care. It is access to critical information about the pandemic. It is access to family members and community. It’s access to the ability to work from home, to keep your family able to pay the bills. We’re hearing where some students are able to connect and other students aren’t, that’s perpetuating a division between who is able to keep up, but what is it going to look like in schools reopened? Where are students going to be and how are we going to level that playing field?”

Tribe said one of the key measures of the success of the government’s broadband policy will be whether it ensures all connections meet or exceed the CRTC’s speed targets of 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload.

Tribe said they are both hoping to see the already promised $1.7 billion for the Universal Broadband Fund move more quickly out the door, along with new money.

Universal high-speed internet access was promised in the Liberals’ campaign platform last fall. They pledged 95 per cent of Canadian homes and businesses would have high-speed internet by 2026 and every Canadian household would have access to it by 2030 no matter where they are located in the country.

Tribe said she hopes the pressures being imposed by the pandemic motivates the government to move those dates up.

The CRTC declared broadband internet a basic telecommunications service back in 2016 and ordered the country’s internet providers to begin working toward boosting internet service and speeds in rural and isolated areas.