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The Federation of Canadian Municipalities is calling on Ottawa to commit $4-billion in new funding over the next 10 years to close the rural internet gap.

The advocacy group wants the federal government to take a longer-term approach to connectivity, saying municipalities and private-sector companies that bid on funded projects need both more money and more predictability than the current ad-hoc approach of announcing a new fund every few years.

The FCM represents almost 2,000 municipalities that comprise more than 90 per cent of Canadians, and almost 80 per cent of its members have fewer than 10,000 residents. More than two million Canadian households don’t have access to internet service that meets the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission target for basic service of 50 megabits a second for downloads and 10 for uploads.

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Rural internet was a central concern at the FCM’s annual board meeting in September, and the non-partisan group decided to make a co-ordinated call for long-term funding to highlight the issue heading into an election year. It is launching an awareness campaign at the regional and local level on Thursday.

“A major expansion in federal investments, with a long-term funding commitment that puts broadband investments on the same time frame as federal infrastructure and housing programs, needs to be at the centre of a national plan to tackle the digital divide for all Canadians,” FCM president Vicki-May Hamm said.

“A national broadband strategy on this scale has never been attempted in Canada before,” she said, adding, "It is crucial for the vitality of our communities, and for some, a key part of their survival.”

The FCM is calling for $400-million a year over 10 years, beginning in the fiscal 2019-20 year. The amount is based in part on a CRTC estimate that it would cost about $7-billion – $5-billion for rural areas and $2-billion for the North, which faces even more challenging connectivity issues – to improve internet service in underserved areas.

The hope is that contributions by provincial governments as well as private-sector companies could get Ottawa’s contribution of $4-billion closer to the $7-billion target. The FCM also wants to see improved cellular speeds in rural areas.

The FCM’s call for a more comprehensive national strategy follows many similar pleas, including one from a cross-party parliamentary committee in the spring.

The federal department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) announced its current, $500-million Connect to Innovate fund for rural and remote broadband in the 2016 budget; it followed an earlier, $300-million fund. The department began awarding money in 2017 and has now announced plans for more than $450-million of the total fund.

The CRTC is also in the midst of launching a $750-million fund. (The commission has faced criticism for setting the minimum speeds for eligible projects at 25 Mbps for downloads and 5 Mbps for uploads with the expectation of an increase to the universal target as technology improves.)

The FCM says such initiatives are appreciated, but the approach is unpredictable and short-term. "The lesson from recent federal programs is that there is significant interest in matching contributions, in particular from the private sector. The incentive to make investments in rural and remote areas will likely be stronger with more significant and longer-term federal funding,” Ms. Hamm said.

Notably, under the Connect to Innovate fund, BCE Inc. and its subsidiary Northwestel have won dozens of the projects, totalling $123-million, or more than 25 per cent of the announced funding.

“There is clearly a role for government in funding communications infrastructure in rural and remote areas that can be challenging for carriers to serve on their own,” BCE spokesman Marc Choma said.

Jean-Luc Ferland, director of communications for Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, said Wednesday evening that the government recognizes the importance of rural broadband access and the minister has asked that the topic be a focal point during a meeting with his provincial and territorial counterparts scheduled for Friday in Vancouver.

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