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opinion

Brian Tobin served as federal minister of industry from 2000 to 2002, and is a former premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada and vice-chair, BMO Financial Group.

Lately I’ve felt a sense of deja vu hearing about the so-called “digital gap” that separates Canada’s haves from its have-nots in terms of access to the digital world and its innumerable benefits.

Twenty years ago, when I was minister of industry, I established the mandate for a National Broadband Task Force. Its report, published back in June, 2001, remains relevant today – not only in identifying the critical network infrastructure challenge Canada still faces, but also showing how to address it.

The 2001 task force was chaired by future governor-general David Johnston and included many of the major players in Canada’s telecom industry. Their report was the first to identify the gap between urban and rural Canada in terms of access to digital connectivity. It was also ahead of its time in identifying network connectivity as a high-leverage tool that could increase urban-rural equity in Canada by strengthening economic opportunity, improving health care and increasing access to education in rural and remote communities. It set an ambitious goal of linking all of Canada, including Indigenous, rural and remote communities, to state-of-the-art broadband networks within three years.

As a passionate champion for the task force recommendations, I lobbied my government vigorously for $1-billion in funding to get this enterprise under way. Then, just three months after the task force report was released, 9/11 happened, and the government became absorbed with other priorities. In the end, we only got a small fraction of the funding that was needed.

No one questions the basic need for all Canadians to be digitally connected, regardless of whether you live in Toronto or Alert Bay, B.C. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how much we all depend on reliable digital networks to keep us connected to what matters – not only to our families and friends, but also for our jobs, schools and the necessities of daily living.

Fast forward to 2021. The good news is progress is being made as the federal government deploys its Universal Broadband Fund. Days ago, for example, Ottawa announced it would provide a welcome $1.44-billion to Telesat to extend broadband internet to approximately 40,000 rural and remote households.

But more must be done. As it stands today, some two million Canadian households in rural and remote areas are digitally underserviced and left behind. Just one-third of Indigenous communities have access to high-speed internet. This glaring inequity in access to opportunity for Canadians – a product of our vast geography – must finally be addressed.

Evolving technology has taken our infrastructure challenge to another level. Now, 5G is becoming the world’s new network standard. It will be a game-changing technology, connecting unlimited numbers of devices at unheard-of speeds, and creating revolutionary applications that will change how we live and work. We are on the threshold of a new era in the digital economy, and Canadians cannot be left on the outside looking in.

Which leads to the question, how do we close Canada’s digital gap not just today, but for the years ahead?

Looking back at the 2001 task force recommendations, two key principles still stand out. First, “The private sector should play a leadership role in the development and operation of broadband networks and services.” And second, “Governments should facilitate the deployment of broadband networks, services and content through policies and regulations that favour private sector investment, competition and innovation.”

Substitute “5G” for “broadband,” and these two principles from 20 years ago define a realistic way forward for Canada today.

The private sector must lead in building 5G, given the sheer scale of the enterprise and the technical challenges. And major private sector players are. Canada’s facilities-based telecommunications operators have already invested billions in building 5G networks in many regions across Canada.

But it is estimated they will have to invest $25-billion more to finish the job, given the huge distances they will need to span to reach Canada’s rural, remote and Indigenous communities. Only facilities-based operators have the resources to invest at this scale, as well as the technical expertise for such a massive project.

The caveat is that investment at this scale requires regulatory certainty. That is why the second task force principle is also essential. To make these investments in prosperity happen, Canada needs a regulatory environment based on a commitment to long-term infrastructure planning. We also need an agenda that promotes innovation, and a competition policy that acknowledges the fundamental need for facilities-based investment.

The bottom line is that government, regulators and the companies that build our networks all need to move forward in a spirit of true partnership to close the digital gap and create the digital infrastructure that will be our economic lifeline in the coming years.

I was proud to champion a task force of forward-looking Canadians who sought to address a basic infrastructure need that has grown more urgent with each passing year. Now is the time to finally make their vision a reality.

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