Canada's digital divide is stark — and rural residents say fixing it must be an election priority
Rural Municipalities of Alberta president says people are experiencing 'digital poverty'
Paul McLauchlin says as president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta, he'd expect to spend all of his time talking about agriculture.
But another topic is front of mind (he's had five meetings about it this week) — internet access.
"There's literally people in this province that do not have access to any broadband," McLauchlin said.
The RMA has listed rural broadband access as its first priority for federal candidates to address. It's listed as serious of a concern as implementing drought and severe weather recovery programs or addressing crumbling infrastructure.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission's broadband fund has set a goal of ensuring everyone can access download speeds of at least 50 megabits per second (Mbps) or upload speeds of 10 Mbps.
At that speed, it takes less than a second to load an email and just under an hour to download a two-hour-long, 4K HD movie. But that can slow down based on several factors, like if multiple people in a home are streaming or downloading files.
Just 45.6 per cent of rural communities currently meet that threshold. The number is even lower in rural Alberta — 37 per cent of households — according to the Alberta Rural Connectivity Coalition. Indigenous communities face the poorest access, at just 24 per cent of households.
McLaughlin says in Alberta's most remote communities, his organization has found only 10 per cent are meeting that goal.
"I've been using the term digital poverty. That's what we're experiencing. And this is not just rural Alberta, this is rural Canada, and we need to bridge the gap," said McLauchlin. "What we're experiencing, boots on the ground, is really a detriment to the economy, education and the ability for rural folks to participate in the economy."
Canadians also pay among the highest internet prices in the world.
Sheila Juhlin, who lives in Crowsnest Pass, says while she's been able to access internet that meets her needs in recent years, a neighbour just a 12-minute drive away in Blairmore doesn't have a reliable connection.
And, she said despite it being such a vital service for accessing employment, education, health care or information, it hasn't always been taken seriously.
"I was complaining to my [previous internet provider] … and I said, 'well, why can't we have such and such?' And he says 'Well, that's the price you pay for living in paradise," Juhlin said. "I found that really rude."
What the parties are promising
The Liberal, Conservative and NDP platforms and leaders have all made various promises when it comes to internet access:
- The Liberals have pledged a use-it-or-lose-it approach to spectrum rights, pushing national carriers to accelerate rollout to rural areas — and if they don't meet those goals, to reallocate capacity to smaller, regional providers. They also say they've already brought wireless prices down.
- The Conservatives say they will build the infrastructure to connect all Canadians to high-speed internet by 2025, and allow more foreign investment in the sector.
- The NDP plan to declare high-speed internet an essential service, create a Crown corporation to deliver telecom services and require companies to end data caps for broadband.
"The NDP is taking kind of a more interventionist approach and more consumer rights approach. The Conservatives are taking more of a competition approach … and then the Liberals are kind of focusing on the funding they've already done," said Imran Mohiuddin with ARCC, a coalition advocating for internet access which is funded by not-for-profit tech accelerator Cybera.
The problem, Mohiuddin said, is that all of the party platforms lack detail as to how they'll fix the problem, especially when it comes to increasing affordability.
And, he said detail is vital when it comes to an issue that's complicated by factors like a monopolized sector, rapidly developing technologies like low Earth orbit satellite broadband and the complications of bringing infrastructure to distant and sparsely populated regions.
"We would like to see a more comprehensive approach under the umbrella of something you could call a national broadband strategy, with aspiration targets for hitting connectivity [and] proper funding. And then, as well, a package of legislative and regulatory changes," he said.
Those changes could include looking at the telecommunications act to see how policy objectives could be changed to drive investment, looking at the CRTC's approach to wholesale broadband access or committing proceeds from spectrum auctions — sales of the frequencies companies use to deploy services — directly to rural development, Mohiuddin suggested.
McLaughlin said he thinks some blend of the party's promises would be ideal.
"I think that the intent of the NDP resonates in some areas, especially those really sparsely populated parts of Canada. But I think that you also need to push for a little bit of competition too, because that makes for better quality."
He also thinks the Liberals' promised rollout of connecting all Canadians to high-speed internet by 2030 needs to be accelerated, sooner even than the Conservative and NDP targets.
"It needs to be done in the next two years and it needs to have … performance measures tied to [those goals]. We're going to miss out on the change in the economy," he said.
Internet access is also a factor that could prevent migration to rural areas, McLauchlin said. He said as Reeve of Ponoka County, his office has received daily phone calls from people considering moving to the area from urban centres during the pandemic.
"They don't ask about tax rates or anything else. Actually the first, number one question we're getting is broadband access — whether they can get internet," he said.
Businesses are also looking to move to more inexpensive locations, he said, and internet is key to bringing those investments in.
Charlene Smylie, who is running as councillor for Parkland County's Division 5, said during the pandemic she's seen local students without good Internet access sitting in school or library parking lots to access WiFi for remote schooling.
"If they didn't have internet … their education suffered," she said. "We do have [the Alberta SuperNet] that goes to municipal offices and schools and libraries and most towns, but it ends there. And why don't we just take it a little bit further?"
She said all three levels of government will have to collaborate to connect households to the network, from municipal rollouts, to a provincial broadband strategy, to targeted federal funding.
"We are going to be using digital methods to continue to drive our economy and provide access to ideas and innovation. And if some child in some remote community doesn't have access to great quality internet, we're really losing the ability for that child or that family or that entrepreneur to have that access to innovative ideas," McLauchlin said.
"I think it goes beyond essential service, and it's my belief it should be a Charter right, that everybody should have access to the access to broadband at a quality and speed that allows them to access this great, fantastic world we live in."