Mark Goldberg

Any day now

At the April 30 meeting of The Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry Navdeep Bains engaged with Bloc Québécois communications critic Martin Champoux in a discussion about the need to improve rural broadband, a problem accentuated by the current pandemic.

Mr. Martin Champoux: Minister Bains, I’ll come back to my question. You acknowledged that a high-speed Internet connection is now an essential service in 2020. We can see this clearly with the current crisis. When we spoke, you said that you intended to speed up the process and shorten the time frame for connecting Canadians. This means that 100% of Canadians and Quebeckers will be connected within a much more reasonable time frame than initially anticipated

Hon. Navdeep Bains: Once again, thank you for your question. You’re right. We must adjust the time frames for high-speed Internet. My colleague Maryam Monsef is responsible for this initiative. I’m sure that she’ll outline solutions that will help people in rural communities.

Mr. Martin Champoux: Am I to understand that you can’t provide an estimate at this time, that there’s still some uncertainty and that we don’t know whether this will take two years or five years?

Hon. Navdeep Bains: Yes. My colleague Maryam Monsef will outline exactly how long this may take and the relevant programs. All I know for sure at this point is that the time frame must be changed, because the current reality is very problematic. This issue is a priority for our government.

Mr. Martin Champoux: Thank you. You also said that you would get this work started as soon as the crisis is over. However, this matter is urgent right now. I imagine that teams are ready to proceed with the installation or, at least, to continue to implement measures to speed up the project. Why can’t this work begin immediately, Minister Bains?

Hon. Navdeep Bains: We’ll start soon. The strategy and the program already exist. We invested a great deal of money in them in the most recent budget, about $1.7 billion. I’m sure that my colleague Maryam Monsef will be outlining solutions soon.

A little over a month later, on June 8, Rural Economic Development Minister Maryam Monsef told the Rural and Remote Broadband Conference that a call for applications for Canada’s Universal Broadband Fund would be issued “in the coming days.”

That was 2 months ago. It is now more than 3 months since we were told there was a recognition that the “current reality is very problematic”, and the “issue is a priority for our government”.

A few weeks ago, I wrote, “It is sometimes painful to watch the glacial pace of government responding to the need for more investment in broadband facilities.” Sometimes, it seems governmental timetables can be measured better in geological terms.

What is taking so long? Part of the delay has to be in the mapping exercise: what areas should have the highest priority for funding? Government subsidies for broadband facilities creates a distortion in the market. The government subsidy means one service provider will have an advantage over any other provider that hopes to offer service, now or in the future. That is why funding programs need to target areas that do not appear to have any other economic way for service to be launched.

“Almost everyone who is already connected needs, or at least wants, to get connected faster and connect more devices to that faster connection.” [see: Too many pots; too little being served]

A month ago, I suggested a quick, low cost way for ISED to help rural ISPs increase broadband speeds [“An easy way to increase rural broadband speeds”]. Problem is, the theoretical reduction in collected spectrum fees means the solution requires interdepartmental approval. When Cabinet is dealing with multi-billion dollar bail-out programs, it must be tough to get the attention of other Ministers with a relatively low cost proposal. It is unfortunately a missed opportunity that could have brought immediate increases in speed and capacity to many rural areas.

The fact is, even if a rural broadband funding program was announced today, money won’t start flowing until next year. In many areas, construction season is effectively over for 2020. It is too late for detailed engineering, equipment ordering and delivery, permitting and installation before winter.

With kids heading back to school in just a month, most households will need access to computers and broadband, even if some classrooms open up for in-person instruction. The state of internet access must be frustrating for many parents.

How do we move forward?

Stakeholders need to have realistic expectations. Management consultants like to say goals should be specific, measurable, attainable. relevant and timely. There was a good reason why the CRTC didn’t set universal gigabit internet as its aspirational goal; that wouldn’t be attainable.

Further, contrary to the assertion by North Grenville Mayor Nancy Peckford in her Ottawa Citizen column, the CRTC did not set 50/10 internet as a “basic minimum standard for internet service”; it was part of a CRTC aspirational goal, to be achieved over the next 10 years (not this summer). And while just 43% of rural Canadians had access to 50 Mbps download speeds in 2018 (the latest year of data), nearly double that (72.1%) had access to at least 25 Mbps.

Those are two year old data points.

Already this year, even without federal government funding, there have been a number of significant announcements for extending higher speed rural broadband to more households [such as here, here, here, here, and here].

The federal government isn’t the only source of funding for broadband expansion, as we saw with last week’s announcement from SWIFT, awarding funding to Teksavvy for fibre-construction to serve Delaware Nation, a First Nation community located in Chatham-Kent, Ontario.

The CRTC has recognized that certain regions may need to take steps toward achieving that target. I wrote about that in “Isn’t some broadband better than nothing?”

It isn’t helpful for so-called internet advocates like Open Media to tell its followers to expect rural Canadians to have access to the same services and the same prices as urban Canadians. That simply isn’t realistic. Affordable internet doesn’t necessarily mean low cost, or low price; it doesn’t mean rural prices should be identical to urban.

Building rural broadband in Canada is expensive and low population densities mean those capital expenditures are amortized across very few people. As a country, we believe broadband should be affordable to all Canadians, but someone has to pay. Lower household densities also means more unproductive “windshield time” for technicians making service and installation calls.

As such, fibre simply isn’t an economic option for many areas. We can, and should, expect wireless to be a significant part of the rural broadband solution space for the foreseeable future. For 5 months now, I have been living and working in rural Ontario with a 25 Mbps fixed wireless service, consistently delivering service, able to support multiple HDTV streams and multiple simultaneous video conference sessions.

How do we improve the business cases for rural broadband?

How can the government help wireless ISPs expand capacity to connect towers?

How can local land use authorities simplify and expedite the process for new antennas?

Are there other regulatory or policy levers that don’t require direct subsidies to improve the business cases for rural expansion?

Like many, I’m expecting an announcement that is certain to impact rural broadband.

It will be coming any day now. But, I’m not holding my breath.

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