Mark Goldberg

No government funds for broadband in 2020

It’s already too late for government broadband funding programs to help rural Canadians get better broadband this year. But, there are still ways that governments can (and should) support new investment.

A few weeks ago, I wrote “Announcing a coming announcement”, which mentioned Ontario’s re-announcement of a program first announced almost a year ago. Last week, the Ontario Government finally released the application guide for ICON – Improved Connectivity for Ontario. For the first round of funding, applications are due August 21 and the government will consider projects that only require up to 25% in provincial support. A little more digging into the Program Guide [released by the government in Word docx format] reveals that funding offers won’t be made until April 21, 2021, so construction may actually begin in the summer of 2021.

In the case of federal funding, recall that 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”. That was over a month ago.

I think we are now well past “in the coming days”, we’re past “in the coming weeks”, and now have to score this one as “in the coming months”.

Remember, this is just to get to the point of announcing the application process. Not a single government subsidized shovel will go in the ground in 2020 to help extend the reach of high speed broadband service for rural Canadians.

It is sometimes painful to watch the glacial pace of government responding to the need for more investment in broadband facilities.

All hope should not be lost, however.

There is still private investment being made. For months, there have been announcements of fibre routes being extended and fixed wireless capacity expansions from carriers large and small. And as I wrote, the federal government can accelerate rural broadband expansion with immediate effect by simply reducing spectrum fees now, instead of waiting until next April 1. Recall, the reduced fee schedule was originally set for 2020, but was delayed a year for no apparent reason.

Not all investment in rural broadband needs to come from government coffers. Government funding of broadband distorts the marketplace. When government funds are provided to one service provider, it has a permanent advantage over its competitors.

What is needed from governments, at all levels, is to enact policy in ways that encourage increased private sector investment in new facilities.

Every policy pronouncement, every regulatory ruling, needs to be examined through lens that asks “will this help get broadband extended or expanded for more people?” We have a national service objective that we need to keep in focus.

In the meantime, the overhang from potential government funding announcements has the potential to delay private sector investment.

Indeed, the promise of next year’s lower spectrum fees for point-to-point connections is delaying investment in upgrading umbilical connections to rural broadband radio towers, delaying service upgrades, and delaying availability for new subscriber connections. As I suggested 2 weeks ago, the federal government should advance the implementation of the new fee schedule to take effect immediately.

Fixing this needs to be a priority for the federal government. It will likely delivery the greatest impact for the least cost.

More than 10% of Canadians still don’t have a residential broadband connection. The next school year opens in a month and a half and for many, we are looking at more online learning.

How can government move faster to get more broadband access, and faster broadband access, available to more people?

Sometimes, it can be easy as getting out of the way.

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