Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a news conference Friday October 23, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Ottawa’s delayed broadband fund welcomed with skepticism by interest groups

Ottawa’s delayed broadband fund welcomed with skepticism by interest groups

The Trudeau government officially launched a previously announced fund Monday that promises to provide $1.75 billion for rural and remote parts of Canada that currently don’t have fast, reliable internet service.

But there was skepticism about how well the government will follow through on its promises and its ability to make sure the money rolls out quickly to projects that will make a difference for families and businesses outside major urban areas..

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce and OpenMedia, for instance, welcomed an extra $750 million that the government is making on top of $1 billion originally announced in March 2019.

But both the business lobby group and the non-profit consumer advocacy group said they want to see that the Trudeau government follows through on its promises of better internet and wireless service for underserved areas.

Maryam Monsef, minister for rural economic development, said the Trudeau government had been ready to officially launch the fund in March but decided to hold off to consult with members of Parliament from rural areas and officials from local governments that were overwhelmed by the COVID crisis.

“We heard that the processes have to be streamlined and more easily accessible,” Monsef said at the Ottawa press conference. “We also heard that communities are, rightfully so, impatient to see progress.”

As a response, she said, the government is ready to accept applications immediately, there’s a new service to assist with navigating the system, and $150 million of the $1.7 billion is designated for projects that are ready to be completed by next November.

Ulrike Bahr-Gedalia, the Chamber’s senior director of digital economy, technology and innovation, said its members want the government to accelerate and streamline its efforts because “everyone has moved online.”

She described Monday’s announcement as “another building block” and the Chamber will work with its members and partners within governments towards getting the plans implemented.

University of Guelph professor Helen Hambly, who heads a project that has been studying rural and agricultural connectivity issues since 2007, said that she was glad that the government had “opened the door” for applications for the universal broadband fund and announced tools to make their work easier.

But Hambly said it remains to be seen how they sort through requests for a relatively small amount of money, considering how much internet and wireless networks cost to build.

She said a “real cause for concern” has been the lack of competition in rural parts of Canada, even in relatively densely populated southern Ontario, and the result has been a lack of choice.

“Unlimited data packages are still few and far between, so people are going over their (limits) at high costs to themselves and their households. This has been a real cause of concern during COVID-19.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was accompanied by four of his ministers during the official announcement in Ottawa, said reliable internet is a basic service, not a luxury.

“Now more than ever a video chat cutting out during a meeting or a connection that’s too slow to upload a school assignment, that’s not just a hassle, that’s a barrier.”

Another barrier that was acknowledged by some of Trudeau’s ministers, under questioning from reporters, is the lack of affordable internet and wireless service in some areas.

OpenMedia, which campaigns for consumer-oriented improvements to Canada’s information services, said in a statement that the Universal Broadband Fund will be a “much-needed boost” to the country’s digital infrastructure.

But OpenMedia campaigner Erin Knight said it remains concerned that a majority of the funds will go to benefit Big Telecom — meaning the country’s large phone and cable companies.

“We’d like to see the government’s investment actively put toward smaller, local, community or Indigenous-led projects,” Knight said.

In addition to the Universal Broadband Fund, the government announced a $600-million deal with Ottawa-based satellite company Telesat to link up particularly remote communities with high-speed broadband via satellite.

Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Navdeep Bains said Telesat’s low-orbit satellites are scheduled to be deployed in late 2021 and service is projected to begin in 2022.

Bains also acknowledged that many communities in the North have faced bracingly high internet fees. He said the government believes competition among different service providers would “enable the price points to go down.”

The Universal Broadband Fund is partly an evolution of the Connect to Innovate program that the Trudeau government announced in its first mandate, to connect more households to the internet, and partly a complement to its $35-billion infrastructure bank.

The Liberals created the Canada Infrastructure Bank in 2017 to entice funding from private-sector partners to fuel what the government has called “transformational” infrastructure projects that would create 60,000 jobs.

However, the bank has been criticized for its relatively small number of investments in fewer than a dozen projects so far and both the Conservatives and NDP promised in the 2019 election to abolish the bank if they were voted into power.

— With files from Christopher Reynolds in Ottawa

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 9, 2020.

David Paddon, The Canadian Press

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