The federal government says it will focus on "backbone" Internet connections to remote and rural communities with its five-year program to invest $500-million in expanded broadband access.
The government first announced the funding in its spring budget and Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, revealed some new details of the program, dubbed Connect to Innovate, on Thursday.
After consulting broadly with Internet providers and other stakeholders, he said, the program will emphasize funding for projects to build "backbone" networks, which he compared to "digital highways that move data in and out of communities."
"Since these highways can carry large amounts of data, they're crucial for institutions such as schools, hospitals and libraries in rural and remote regions," he said during a news conference in Wakefield, Que.
Remote, hard-to-reach communities often face difficulty with reliable and fast transport of traffic to and from the broader Internet. Backbone connections can be provided by satellite, microwave technology and, ideally, fibre-optic cables.
In an interview Thursday, Mr. Bains said the focus of this program will be on fibre infrastructure, although there will be some flexibility in cases where that is not feasible.
"Ultimately what we heard clearly from our consultation was getting fibre to the institutes, having that backbone support, was so critical for many communities across the country."
During an April hearing at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), many participants said better backbone connections are badly needed for places such as Nunavut, which has 25 fly-in communities.
By the middle of 2017, the government has estimated that about 98 per cent of Canadians will have access to broadband Internet service with download speeds of at least five megabits a second. But that still leaves about 300,000 households without access and, in many cases, residents of rural and Northern communities who do have access deal with intermittent speeds and severe constraints on data usage.
The CRTC is planning to release its decision from that hearing on "basic telecom services" next Wednesday and could announce levies on Internet revenues to help pay for expanded broadband access.
During the hearing, CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais said he was disappointed Canada lacked a national strategy on broadband deployment.
Internet advocacy group OpenMedia pointed to that criticism on Thursday, stating that while any investment is welcome, "What we need is a comprehensive National Broadband Strategy, rather than an underwhelming piecemeal approach."
On that point, Mr. Bains said he has met with his counterparts at the provincial and territorial level to discuss innovation and economic development.
"One of the issues key issues we're looking at – to align government investments and priorities in funding – is around broadband connectivity," he said, adding that he wants to be sure investment at the federal level "complements the work done at the provincial and territorial level as well."
"We're going to wait to see the ruling the CRTC puts forward with respect to broadband," he said, when asked if there is a need to co-ordinate efforts with the commission.
"We wanted to demonstrate leadership in this area," by first announcing and now deploying the program, he said, adding, "We're willing to work with anyone who wants to advance this agenda."
The Connect to Innovate program, which will run until 2021, aims to expand access to 300 communities. The deadline for companies seeking funding under the initiative is March 13. The program will also allocate some funding for "last-mile" projects that directly connect individual users' homes.
Mr. Bains said that by leveraging the contributions of the private sector to those projects, the program could represent a total investment of up to $1-billion.
The previous government launched two earlier programs to extend Internet access, beginning with an investment of $225-million over three years that started in 2009-2010 and followed by the $305-million Connecting Canadians initiative launched in 2014.
Both programs contributed funds to applicants – ranging from large players like Telus and Bell to small Internet service providers – for discrete individual projects that used both wired and wireless technologies.
Connecting Canadians awarded funds to more than 70 projects that have been publicly announced. Its goal was to support the delivery of services that met target download speeds of 5 Mbps and upload speeds of 1 Mbps to 98 per cent of households by 2017.
In an e-mailed statement Thursday, Diane Finley, the Conservative critic for Innovation, Science and Economic Development, said she was concerned about the focus in the new program on connecting institutions within communities to backbone networks, stating "people living outside of that community still won't have access to the Internet they need."
The press release and background materials provided Thursday did not specifically set target speeds, but suggested the government would continue earlier efforts to ensure all Canadians have access to minimum download speeds of five megabits per second and upload speeds of 1 Mbps.