House Call with Carol Hughes

Government sends wrong message to regions struggling for better internet

I’ve written quite a bit about the challenges we have with internet in the North for good reason. No other technology has the power to transform our region and level the playing field of opportunity between rural and urban Canadians than high-speed internet service. We have known this for as long as the technology existed, but after more than a quarter century, too many parts of this region and large swaths of rural and northern Canada are still getting by with slow, expensive, or even no internet services. When we consider the reasons why, we have to look past the companies that deliver services and at the government which provides the bandwidth these services are built upon.

The old excuses of cost and geographic challenges have been addressed by other countries, like Australia, that share similar barriers to extending good service to sparsely populated areas. The missing ingredient may be the political will to make demands on the big Canadian internet providers, but nothing in the government’s recent actions suggest they are willing to challenge these companies or to look to other models that may provide better service in a timely fashion.

It’s hard to know where the government stands when it comes to internet services. While they can often sound as if they are committed to getting Canadians the best service at affordable rates, their actions can lead observers to other conclusions. A recent example is how they sided with Canada’s largest telecom companies in their appeal of an August 2019 CRTC decision to lower wholesale rates.

This was done despite the fact that Canadians are more dependent than ever on high-speed internet connection during this pandemic for work, school and essential services. Instead of making fast and reliable internet connection more affordable for Canadians, the government is worried about rich telecom corporations losing profits. They are clearly on the wrong side and Canadians deserve better.

The problem is much bigger than the confines of Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing or even Northern Ontario. In Canada, 63 percent of rural households do not have access to high speed internet at all. In the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut, no households have access to high-speed broadband. During this public health emergency, the situation has gotten worse for Canadians in rural and remote areas when we should be moving heaven and earth to make things better. What’s also discouraging is that the government hasn’t looked at more methods to deliver service to these areas.

Municipally-based broadband is a solution that isn’t getting enough attention or assistance. In this scenario, the internet is provided by the community to its residents. While the infrastructure costs are typically invested in by the local government as an alternative to privately-owned networks, seed money from the federal government could help these solutions move forward quickly. This would allow projects to begin while profits from the venture could pay all or most of the seed money back. An example of that model is in place in Olds, Alberta (population 9,184), where the profits from that community’s broadband project are projected to completely pay off the community’s loans from the government within 10 years. The cost was $21 million, but that represents a great investment.

Either way, something has to give. Canada’s largest telecom companies have been lobbying the government extensively to protect their profits and it shows. New Democrats have been consistent on this file calling out the government for its lackluster approach to expanding service and for tolerating exorbitant rate schemes. They noticed enough to campaign on these issues, but the time to act is clearly upon us and yet their efforts remain focused on corporate profits.