Rural Economic Minister unveils strategy to connect all Canadians to the internet

Rural Economic Development Minister Bernadette Jordan unveiled the Connectivity Strategy for Canada that expands on how the government intends to meet its target to connect 100 percent of Canadian households to high-speed internet.

In an interview with MobileSyrup, Jordan said she was “really excited to see the plan unveiled,” which has been in the works since she was appointed to the newly created role in January.

The strategy has been developed to work alongside the goals put forward by Innovation, Science, and Economic Development (ISED), the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), stakeholders, Indigenous partners, and all levels of government.

“One of the things we know is that there is no one size fits all solution to connecting Canadians. This is a huge country, and we have population density challenges in certain areas, we have topography challenges, we know to connect 100 percent of Canadians, which is our goal, is going to take all of us together,” Jordan said.

The 33-page document titled Rural Opportunity, National Prosperity: An Economic Development Strategy for Rural Canada, develops ideas concerning housing for rural Canadians, preparing them for jobs, protecting the land against climate change and ways to drive economic growth through rural infrastructure.

A big chunk of the document is focused on Jordan’s Connectivity Strategy. It is important to note that no new investments have been announced.

The strategy builds on the existing investments, which includes Budget 2019’s $1.7 billion CAD over 13 years to establish the Universal Broadband Fund, low earth orbit satellites, topping the Connect to Innovate program, and meeting connectivity needs for the future. $500 million from the Connect to Innovate program that was announced in 2016; $750 million from the CRTC’s broadband fund; $1 billion from the Canada Infrastructure Bank, which will also leverage at least $2 billion in additional private sector funding; and the Accelerated Investment Incentive.

Details of how the Universal Broadband Fund will be implemented was not mentioned in the document, but MobileSyrup learned that an announcement will be made in the coming months that will detail who can apply to it and how it will be distributed.

The ministry intends to design the fund “around the needs of rural, remote, and Indigenous communities,” and this year plans to engage with Canadians, stakeholders, internet-service providers, municipalities and Indigenous communities to develop it.

Centre of expertise, online broadband portal to be established

In the immediate future, Jordan’s ministry intends to launch an online broadband portal to navigate these different funding options.

She said that the portal will be released shortly and will be designed so individuals that don’t have high-speed internet yet will be able to access it.

“Depending on what the project is, people will be able to go to the portal and find out what is the [best financing model],” she said.

Coinciding with the portal will be a centre of expertise at ISED, that will have individuals ready to answer questions for those look to get help on any of the projects outlined.

These two tools will help in municipalities and rural locations that do not have a lot of staff working and want to apply for internet services. Jordan explained these tools will help them navigate their application process more seamlessly.

Connectivity Strategy focuses on three pillars

A senior ISED official said during a technical briefing specific to the Connectivity Strategy that there are three pillars to the project.

The first is to get 100 percent of Canadians connected to the 50Mbps download speeds/10Mbps upload target speeds by 2030. The government expects that 95 percent of Canadians will be connected by 2026 and 90 percent by 2021.

Right now, only 37 percent of rural households are able to access these network speeds, compared to 97 percent of households in urban areas.

Jordan reiterated that the 50/10 target “is a base, not the ceiling,” adding that as technologies advance that speed could change.

This part of the plan will also ensure that Canadians have access to cellular network services. The ISED official added that connecting this many Canadians will use a mix of technology including fibre optic cables, wireless and satellite technology.

The official said that technology that will be used will be determined based on what is best for the area it is serving.

An example of concrete actions that will take place right now is the existing Connect to Innovate program that aims to bring broadband internet access to now 900 remote and rural areas and communities across Canada.

The official also added that this part of the pillar will also include ensuring Canadians have access to affordable services and offerings. Jordan said that this is a top priority and that she is working with Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains to accomplish this goal.

“We want to make sure that the CRTC is looking at programs that are through a consumer lens and we know where there is competition there are lower costs,” Jordan said. “ We want to make sure that as we go forward we are working in cooperation with all levels of the government, with the CRTC and with other departments like ISED to make sure that what we are rolling out isn’t just connecting people but making sure that they can afford to be connected as well.”

The second pillar deals with the impact of the strategy, which the official noted would mean the government would maximize its opportunities and focus on areas that are the most underserved and making the best use of available tools.

That also means using existing infrastructure to roll out networks, raising awareness surrounding these issues when needed, partnering with individuals, relying on the CRTC’s policy reviews and access to spectrum.

The third pillar will ensure there is partnership and collaboration between all levels of the government, stakeholders and Indigenous partners.

That would also include working with the CRTC to improve the publicly-available mapping and data information on broadband coverage.

More coordination to ensure effective execution

The ISED official also noted that part of creating the Connectivity Strategy was not only to lay out how the government intends to move forward with getting 100 percent of Canadians connected but also to be organized.

The Wire Report, a tech and telecom online publication that is owned by The Hill Times, reported a few days before Jordan’s strategy was released that ISED failed to meet its “internal goal” to have “nearly all of the contribution agreements signed” as part of its Connect to Innovate program.

According to an Access to Information request, the Wire Report learned that of the 175 projects under the program, only 123 had signed contribution agreements.

The ISED official said that the department was happy with the results that have come out of the program and recognized that the projects reside in “complex and challenging areas.”

The official said that the department was “looking to improve that going forward and part of that will be in the engagement side of things to make sure we are working with partners.”

The official noted that part of the strategy will include better coordination across programs.

Image credit: Bernadette Jordan

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