A cross-party parliamentary committee is unanimously calling on the federal government to take more action to address the roughly $7-billion problem of connecting rural and northern residents to high-speed internet.
In a report published Tuesday, the committee urged Ottawa to introduce regulatory and funding changes to help smaller telecom operators provide “last-mile” internet solutions in rural communities. It suggested changes such as making it easier for small players to access spectrum − the airwaves that carry telecommunications signals − and simplifying the process to apply for funding.
The committee heard “it’s a dog’s breakfast out there” when it comes to projects to improve the state of the last mile (which means connecting homes and businesses to the broader, backbone network of the internet), Dan Ruimy, a Liberal MP and chair of the standing committee on industry, science and technology, said in a press conference.
“You’ll have everything from interesting co-ops and municipalities that are partnering with exciting opportunities and some innovation that’s taking place, but there still is no real pattern that you can find out there.”
The report recommended that the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development develop a “comprehensive rural broadband strategy” that would work with all levels of government across the country and key players, such as internet providers, First Nations communities and non-profit groups.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has ruled that high-speed internet is a “basic telecom service” that should be available to everyone. But by the end of 2016, only 39 per cent of rural households had the option to subscribe to a service offering the regulator’s target of download speeds of 50 megabits per second and upload speeds of 10 Mbps.
The CRTC is in the midst of rolling out a $750-million fund to expand broadband access while the federal government has already started funding projects under its own five-year, $500-million Connect to Innovate fund, and numerous funds of a similar nature exist at the provincial level.
But the standing committee’s report notes that one CRTC estimate suggested it could cost about $5-billion to connect rural Canada and a further $2-billion for the North. The CRTC witness who provided those numbers emphasized they are rough and said detailed costing is difficult, but the figures give a sense of the scale of the challenge.
Mr. Ruimy said the intent of the report is not to call for more funding, but rather to recommend specific changes that could make a difference, particularly for smaller operators.
“The comprehensive strategy is really important but it’s not necessarily about ‘here, we’re going to give you more money,’ ” he said in an interview Wednesday.
“One of the things we heard was the larger telecom players might say, ‘well, it’s not necessarily profitable to go into a small town.’ But when you’re looking at a small provider, the conditions could be right for that small provider to be profitable.”
Mr. Ruimy said a range of changes could help, including keeping better statistics on internet speeds and service across the country and helping operators gain access to utility poles, railway corridors or roads already under construction.
A spokesman for Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said Wednesday he appreciates the work of the committee and will look into the report’s recommendations further.
The report was the result of almost two years of study that included a trip to Washington, D.C., to consider U.S. struggles with rural internet access as well as the review of 50 oral and written submissions.