Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) came under fire in a report on rural and remote connectivity tabled by the Office of the Auditor General of Canada (OAG).
According to the OAG’s November 20th, 2018 report, ISED hasn’t done enough to improve access to high-quality connectivity for Canadians living in rural and remote communities.
“In fact, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada has been reluctant to establish a strategy without funding,” reads an excerpt from the report’s “Overall message” section.
“So, [ISED] did not have a strategy to meet the connectivity needs of Canadians in rural and remote areas.”
The OAG’s report also found that ISED didn’t provide Connect to Innovate funding applicants with enough information about funding structures, causing some applicants to invest more effort preparing their proposals, while “all applicants lacks full knowledge of the basis or selecting funding proposals.”
Connect to Innovate is a $500 million fund established by the federal government to invest in rural and remote internet connectivity.
The OAG was also critical of ISED’s approach to spectrum license auctions, arguing that smaller internet service providers (ISP) didn’t have enough access to high-quality spectrum to “support broadband deployment in rural and remote areas.”
According to the OAG, ISED “auctioned spectrum licenses for geographic areas that were too large for smaller service providers to submit bids for.”
“…[ISED] did not develop and implement a national strategy to improve broadband Internet connectivity to a specific service level in rural and remote areas” — Office of the Auditor General of Canada
“Also, the secondary market for unused spectrum did not function well, partly because licensees had little business incentive to make unused spectrum available for subordinate licensing,” reads an excerpt from the report.
The OAG proposed a number of recommendations, including that ISED establish a clear timeline for the eventual development of a rural and remote broadband internet strategy that defines the “minimum level of reliable and high-quality internet service.”
The report concluded with an acknowledgement that ISED’s and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) efforts to monitor the state of rural and remote connectivity, but didn’t share enough of that information publicly.
“We also concluded that Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada did not develop and implement a national strategy to improve broadband Internet connectivity to a specific service level in rural and remote areas,” reads an excerpt from the OAG’s filing.
Response from government
Despite the federal auditor general’s criticisms, ISED and the CRTC agreed with the overall recommendations raised by the OAG.
Innovation minister Navdeep Bains used a November 20th, 2018 media release to respond to some of the auditor general’s criticisms.
“We accept the recommendations and will move forward to improve rural and remote connectivity,” said Bains, in the same November 20th media release.
Bains added that his department is currently working on drafting a connectivity strategy “with our provincial and territorial partners that reflect the ambition we share: to get all Canadians online and participating in the digital world.”
“The CRTC is committed to working together with all levels of government as part of a collaborative effort to provide broadband Internet service…” — CRTC spokesperson
“Rural Internet will continue to be a priority for our government,” said Bains.
‘We are laying the [groundwork] for 5G deployment, including in rural areas, and making significant amounts of spectrum available through upcoming auctions.”
A CRTC spokesperson told MobileSyrup via email that the Commission “continue to share broadband infrastructure information with ISED to support evidence-based decision-making.”
“The CRTC is committed to working together with all levels of government as part of a collaborative effort to provide broadband Internet service to underserved Canadians,” said the CRTC.
OpenMedia critical of ISED’s lack of plans
Digital rights advocacy group OpenMedia responded to the OAG’s report in a blistering November 20th, 2018 media release.
In a phone call with MobileSyrup, OpenMedia executive director Laura Tribe said that her organization hopes that Bains and ISED will take “concrete steps” to address the digital divide between urban and rural and remote Canadians.
“What we’re looking for is a plan itself,” said Tribe.
“Saying we want these things to happen without the government putting money behind it is unrealistic.”
“What we’re looking for is a plan itself” — Laura Tribe, OpenMedia
Tribe added that the OAG’s finding regarding spectrum license auctions echo comments previously heard by OpenMedia.
Tribe concluded by expressing hope that ISED will take the necessary steps to remediate Canada’s so-called digital divide.
“I’m really excited and hopeful that something will come from this,” said Tribe.
“I think we’ve heard for a long time talk about these issues…what we’re waiting for now is a real plan.”