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Opinion

For rural and remote communities, broadband access is not a game

By NDP MP Brian Masse      

While 5G is making headlines, there are still communities in this country struggling for any reliable internet connection.

Members of the House Industry Committee, including NDP MP Brian Masse, second from left, talk to journalists about their unanimous report, Broadband Connectivity in Rural Canada: Overcoming the Digital Divide, on April 17, 2018 at the National Press Theatre. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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Over the last decade, Canadians from coast to coast to coast have decried consecutive governments for not doing enough to support rural and remote broadband access. Canadians in these communities should have access to broadband supports—it’s 2019, after all. There are a whole host of reasons given that not every Canadian has access to affordable and reliable broadband of some kind, but the Canadian government committed to fix this. Unfortunately, four years after taking over government, we are still fighting for the rights of our rural and remote residents.

Instead, recent headlines of Huawei and fifth-generation (5G) wireless networks have overtaken our media cycles with fears of security threats to Canadians’ privacy and our data. Legitimate in every way, these fears are part of a broader discussion on internet connectivity and access.  However, 5G is about big cities and communities that already have affordable access to wireless networks, all while Canada’s rural and remote communities are disconnected from Canada in the government’s push for innovation.

The 2018 budget focused on strategic innovation yet did little to encourage the growth of broadband access in our rural communities. Small- and medium-sized businesses, families, hospitals, and farmers all need access to modern, efficient, and affordable 21st century infrastructure to compete. Many Canadians in remote communities do not have the ability to compete with their urban counterparts; the digital divide between urban and rural continues to expand.

To address this gap, in April 2018 the innovation minister was handed a gift by the House of Commons Industry Committee. Our report, Broadband Connectivity in Rural Canada: Overcoming the Digital Divide, unanimously supported by all parties, and in the best interests of rural and remote Canadians, recommended 12 points for the minister to consider while moving forward and improving access to broadband for rural and remote communities. This report laid the foundation to progress, and provided political Kevlar for the minister to take action.

Some of  the recommendations included: working closer with internet service providers; government funding for “last mile” infrastructure; and, considering the spectrum allocation process for broadband deployment to ensure smaller providers have a larger chance of obtaining spectrum licences to help push service to rural and remote communities.

Since 2001, there have been multiple spectrum auctions, resulting in billions of dollars to our government in licences awarded to telecommunications companies. These spectrum auctions continue being a cash cow for the government, yet Canadians in rural and remote communities still do not have decent service, or even service at all. This begs the question of where this money is being spent. It’s time for this government to take those funds and reinvest them into these rural communities’ broadband infrastructure.

New Democrats know that it is imperative that Canada continues competing in the global innovation race, and 5G wireless technologies will help with international competitiveness. But do we do this at the expense of our own communities being left in the dark?

No. We need balance, and it will become a competitive advantage.

Canadians need both simultaneously: affordable and accessible broadband alongside the development and deployment of a safe and reliable 5G network. Focus should not be on one priority or the other; it should be on how to best connect every Canadian. Those who have no access should get it, and those that do should be able to participate in next-generation technologies. Every Canadian should be participating in the same digital economy, especially as we move services online away from bricks and mortar.

This past fall, the auditor general released a report on the digital divide between Canadians in rural and urban centres. It highlighted the government’s lack of strategy to meet the connectivity needs of Canadians in rural and remote communities.

Also in the fall, a decision by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission halved the minimum speeds previously announced by the government in 2016—from 50 megabits per second to 25 for downloads, and from 10 megabits per second to five for uploads—for Canadians in rural and remote areas. This is a step backwards and comparable to Canadians playing Pong versus PlayStation Pro. It is not acceptable and the about 16 per cent of Canadian households with no access to internet would all agree. Broadband access is not a game.

Brian Masse is the Member of Parliament for Windsor West, Ont., and the NDP innovation, science, and economic development critic.

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