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Canada's Minister of Rural Economic Development Maryam Monsef speaks during a meeting of the special committee on the COVID-19 pandemic, as efforts continue to help slow the spread of the coronavirus disease, in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, May 20, 2020.

BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

Ottawa will soon start taking applications as it looks to dole out funding for projects aimed at bringing high-speed internet to rural and remote areas, Maryam Monsef, Canada’s Minister of Rural Economic Development, said Monday.

Ms. Monsef’s comments come as the federal government faces growing pressure to bring faster, more reliable internet service to those living outside of major cities. Consumer advocates say the pandemic has made it difficult for those without access to high-speed internet to work, learn and even access health care as provincial lockdown measures forced many services to move online.

Ms. Monsef did not provide an exact timeline for when the Universal Broadband Fund, which is expected to pay out up to $1-billion over 10 years, would be open to applicants, saying only that calls for applications would be going out “in the coming days.” The funding is meant 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.

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The government had previously set a target of connecting all Canadians to high-speed broadband – defined as 50 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 10 Mbps for uploads – by 2030. By 2026, it aimed to have such speeds available to 95 per cent of the country’s residents.

“COVID-19 has forced us to reconsider our timelines and has added greater urgency to this work,” Ms. Monsef said in an address to Canada’s Rural and Remote Broadband Conference, held virtually on Monday.

The government is looking to work with municipalities, Indigenous communities, provinces and territories, and both large and small telecom providers on the infrastructure projects, Ms. Monsef said.

Canadians in less densely populated areas typically pay higher fees for slower internet service, a problem that consumer advocates say has worsened as network traffic has risen during the COVID-19 crisis. A report 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.

Laura Tribe, executive director of OpenMedia, an organization advocating for widespread inexpensive internet access, said she’s hoping that the government will announce an increase in funding and more aggressive timelines alongside its call for applications. She would also like to see a commitment from the government to allocate some of the funding to smaller providers, municipalities and Indigenous communities rather than to the large telecom companies.

“Every single day that goes by that people don’t have any hope for getting the internet is another day that they’re left behind," Ms. Tribe said.

Opening the fund to applications is “phase one of a number of steps before money even goes out the door, let alone shovels go into the ground,” she added.

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Last month, Ms. Monsef said the government is preparing to launch an online portal where communities can track the progress of broadband infrastructure projects in a bid to increase accountability and transparency. The website will track projects through various stages including design, environmental assessment, Indigenous consultations and construction.

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