Mark Goldberg

Announcing a coming announcement

In central Ontario, the sun is shining, temperatures are in the mid-20’s, and there’s virtually no humidity. It is beautiful mid-June weather.

It is a perfect time for construction crews to be out installing broadband facilities in unserved and under-served rural markets except for one important missing ingredient: funding approvals.

Two weeks ago, Ontario re-announced its plans to spend $150M on rural broadband, plans that were originally announced in July, 2019. We will likely see another press conference announcing applications opening, another series of media events as funds trickle out to various communities, followed by ceremonial ribbon cuttings in time for the next election campaign.

This is, in no way, unique to Ontario.

Excuse my cynicism, but I am getting frustrated watching governments delay necessary spending as political strategists sort out optimal timing for the requisite media events – events with costs sometimes approaching the level of the government funding being handed out.

On June 8, Rural Economic Development Minister Maryam Monsef told the Rural and Remote Broadband Conference that a call for applications for the Universal Broadband Fund would be released “in the coming days”. In other words, June 8 was an announcement to announce a coming announcement, that is already too late. Those ‘coming days’ have already become ‘coming weeks’. And this follows Minister Bains telling the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology on April 30 that the funding announcement would be coming ‘soon’.

The Universal Broadband Fund isn’t new. I wrote about it when it was announced 15 months ago. Over the 2019-20 budget year, the government had allocated $26M, presumably to develop the program. Prior to the world turning upside down, that fund was supposed to spend $162M between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021, but 3 months into the year, we don’t even know when there will be a call for applications.

The CRTC delayed its application process for its Broadband Fund from March 27 to April 30 to June 1.

Recall that we learned in May that more than 2/3 of the applications for funding under the Federal Government’s $585M Connect to Innovate program were denied; of 892 applications received, 874 received a response and 610 were denied funds.

What happened to the remaining 18 projects that weren’t told ‘no’?

Four years ago, SWIFT announced it received $180M in broadband funding from the governments of Ontario and Canada. Although there are now a number of open RFPs on its website, it is an understatement to suggest its achievements to date are disappointing.

In many parts of Canada, especially in rural and remote regions, there is a construction season.

That season is now.

For shovels to start digging, companies first need planning, permits, equipment and labour to be in place. Let me rephrase that: those needed to be in place already to have a meaningful impact in 2020.

There are many communications companies, large and small, proceeding with projects on their own, projects that had corporate budget approvals last fall, and projects triggered by this year’s dramatic shifts in communications traffic from isolating at home.

But make no mistake, government dithering means many Canadians will have to wait another year or more because approvals will come too late for executing many rural broadband projects until at least the 2021 construction season.

Will there be gains in the number of homes that have access to better broadband this year? Certainly.

But, will it be due to government programs or in spite of them? Standby. We’ll be hearing an announcement on that soon.

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