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Ottawa is boosting its funding for rural broadband projects by $750-million and looking to speed up the deployment of high-speed internet amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The federal government says its Universal Broadband Fund, which was first announced in the 2019 budget, will now dole out up to $1.75-billion to projects aimed at bringing high-speed broadband to rural and remote areas, up from $1-billion previously. The funding is meant to subsidize the cost of building networks in sparsely populated parts of the country, where it is tougher for telecom companies to recoup their investments.

Ottawa said the additional money will complement $2-billion in low-cost financing available for rural broadband projects through the Canada Infrastructure Bank.

The commitment includes $150-million that will be provided on an expedited basis to shovel-ready projects that could be completed by November of next year. Senior officials at Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada said the aim is to get money out the door ahead of the next spring’s construction season.

The announcement comes as the global health crisis has exacerbated the digital divide between urban and rural parts of the country. As workplaces, schools and even health care have moved online, many Canadians outside of major cities have been hit with hefty bills for slower, less reliable internet connections.

But even as it’s increased the need for connectivity, the pandemic has also slowed the government’s progress, Rural Economic Development Minister Maryam Monsef said Monday. “We were ready to go in March with the new Universal Broadband Fund – and then the pandemic hit,” Ms. Monsef said during a news conference Monday, when asked about the delay. (Ms. Monsef has been saying since June that the fund would start applications “in the coming days.”)

Government officials have spent recent months gathering input on how Ottawa’s previous broadband funding program, Connect to Innovate, could have been improved and have incorporated that feedback in the design of the Universal Broadband Fund, Ms. Monsef said.

“The program we launched today is the direct result of input from Canadians across the country,” Ms. Monsef said in an interview Monday.

One of the changes being made is greater co-ordination between the numerous sources of funding for rural broadband available, including the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the Canada Infrastructure Bank and various provincial governments, a system described by some critics as a patchwork.

“There are a lot of cooks in this kitchen,” Ms. Monsef said. “Somebody needs to co-ordinate all of the different activities happening on the ground across the country, to ensure that we avoid overlap and to ensure that our investments go as far as possible,” she said, adding that Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada will be taking on that role.

Laura Tribe, executive director of OpenMedia, an organization advocating for widespread, inexpensive internet access said she’s encouraged that the government has made internet a top priority.

“It is frustrating that it had to take this long, particularly during a pandemic,” Ms. Tribe said, adding that the delay means projects have now been put off until spring and summer of next year.

“They skipped construction season. It’s frozen now. ... They’ve delayed a full year’s worth of project rollout by their handling of this file,” Ms. Tribe said.

With the additional funding announced Monday, Ottawa expects that 98 per cent of the country’s residents will have access to high-speed broadband by 2026, rising to 100 per cent by 2030.

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