Liberals hasten high-speed broadband access plan in response to pandemic

As more Canadians find themselves living online while stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Liberal government is accelerating its plan to increase high-speed broadband coverage in rural Canada.

CRTC data suggests as few as 40.8 per cent of rural households have access to high-speed broadband

Bell, Rogers and Telus have all acknowledged their networks are experiencing higher-than-normal traffic during the pandemic. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

As more Canadians find themselves living online while stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Liberal government is accelerating its strategy to increase high-speed broadband coverage in rural Canada.

A spokesperson for Rural Economic Development Minister Maryam Monsef said the government is consulting with telecommunication providers, rural municipalities and others about how best to move up plans to improve access to high-speed Internet in rural and remote communities.

"The current crisis has reinforced the fact that high-speed Internet access is no longer a luxury," said Marie-Pier Baril in a statement to CBC News.

It's still unclear how the initiative — first reported by the Wire Report — would work, but Monsef's office said "all options are currently on the table."

"While timelines are being worked out, we recognize the urgency and we recognize that this is also a big part of supporting our economy post-pandemic," Baril said.

On Thursday, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains told a parliamentary committee (which, ironically, was plagued by connection problems of its own) that Monsef is expected to bring forward solutions soon.

The "when" is a key point of concern for Josh Tabish, corporate communications manager at the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, the not-for-profit agency that manages the .ca internet domain.

"It felt like overnight our entire education system, social calendar and jobs all moved online, and we really need to make sure that rural Canadians have access to the same speeds and quality that their urban counterparts do," he said. 

With countless Canadians, young and old, now browsing from home at all hours, the pandemic's stay-at-home measures have been testing bandwidth limits and telephone network capacity.

The pandemic also has highlighted Canadians' unequal access to high-speed service.

In rural areas, CRTC data suggest as few as 40.8 per cent of Canadian households have access to high-speed broadband.

Tabish said connecting the entire country will take both time and a strategy, but there are things the government can do in the short term.

"We need to tap into the incredible talent and brilliant people we have in this country who can help string up towers and get those connections out far and wide," he said.

"There's a million good ideas out there."

Poor internet connections put kids at a disadvantage: advocate 

Laura Tribe is executive director of OpenMedia, a non-profit which has been calling for a national broadband strategy for years. She said unequal access to high-speed puts some families and children at a disadvantage.

"It is no longer, I think, acceptable to view the internet as a luxury. It is access to health care. It is access to critical information about the pandemic. It is access to family members and community. It's access to the ability to work from home, to keep your family able to pay the bills," she said.

"We're hearing where when some students are able to connect and other students aren't, that's perpetuating a division between who is able to keep up, but what is it going to look like in schools reopened? Where are students going to be and how are we going to level that playing field?"

Tribe said one of the key measures of the success of the government's broadband policy will be whether it ensures that all connections meet or exceed the CRTC's speed targets of 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload.

Tabish and Tribe said they are both hoping to see the already promised $1.7 billion for the Universal Broadband Fund move more quickly out the door, along with new money.

Rural Economic Development Minister Maryam Monsef's office said the coronavirus crisis has reinforced the importance of high-speed Internet access. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

"It's going to cost a lot of money to connect all Canadians to high quality broadband internet access. Conservative estimates put it around $5 billion to connect the entire country," said Tabish.

"That sounds like a lot of money. But Canada has a history of making huge investments in infrastructure that at the time seemed absolutely ludicrous, but really set the country up for success. Of course, the railroad is the all-time classic example of this. So we hope that Minister Bains, Minister Monsef and the government do everything they can to get as many Canadians online as possible."

Universal high-speed internet access was promised in the Liberals' campaign platform last fall. They pledged that 95 per cent of Canadian homes and businesses would have high-speed internet by 2026 and that every Canadian household would have access to it by 2030 "no matter where they are located in the country."

Tribe said she hopes the pressures being imposed by the pandemic motivate the government to move those dates up.

The CRTC declared broadband internet a basic telecommunications service back in 2016 and ordered the country's internet providers to begin working toward boosting internet service and speeds in rural and isolated areas.

With files from the CBC's Thomas Daigle

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