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The federal government is preparing to launch an online portal where communities can track the progress of broadband infrastructure projects as it looks to accelerate its investments in rural internet in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The website – which will track projects through various stages including design, environmental assessment, Indigenous consultations and construction – is an attempt to increase accountability and transparency as Ottawa faces growing pressure to bring faster, more reliable internet service to Canadians living outside of major cities.

“We are working as quickly as we can,” Rural Economic Development Minister Maryam Monsef said in an interview Monday, adding that the projects are complex. "They take two to three years to complete.”

Ottawa had previously set a target of bringing high-speed broadband – which it defined as 50 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 10 Mbps for uploads – to all Canadians by 2030, and to 95 per cent of residents by 2026. It had earmarked roughly $6-billion toward its goal, to be doled out to telecom companies and community organizations. The funding is intended to subsidize the cost of building networks in sparsely populated parts of the country where telecom providers would not be able to recoup their investments.

But as the global health crisis has accelerated a shift to working and learning from home, critics and consumer advocates are calling for the process to be expedited.

Home internet traffic has risen by as much as 49 per cent for downloads and 69 per cent for uploads since businesses and schools were shuttered in response to COVID-19, according to a report published Monday by the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association.

That has put a strain on those living in rural parts of the country, sometimes just outside of urban areas, who often have to shell out more for slower connections. A report published by the Canadian Internet Registration Authority found that median download speeds for rural users in April clocked in at 3.78 Mbps – nearly 12 times lower than the 44.09 Mbps measured in urban areas.

Both the Conservatives and the NDP have in recent weeks called for changes to the government’s approach to rural broadband investments.

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner released a document earlier this month outlining her party’s 14 recommendations, including that the Liberal government develop a detailed national broadband strategy before making any further investments.

“Investments in rural broadband by successive governments and incumbent providers over nearly two decades have not solved the problem. Investment is needed, but first the system and the regulatory environment need to change,” Ms. Rempel Garner said in a statement.

The NDP, meanwhile, called on Ottawa to expedite its rural broadband strategy so that it’s completed in the next four years.

Ms. Monsef said the government is open to “all good ideas” and to working with all willing parties so that projects can get built “as quickly as possible.”

“We are going to work very hard to make the most of every single dollar, to invest in infrastructure that is future-proof and to expedite processes on our end so that the projects can begin where they haven’t begun, and to accelerate projects where they’re already under way," Ms. Monsef said.

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