Municipal leaders hope a $500-million commitment in this spring’s federal budget for expanding broadband Internet services to underserviced areas of rural and remote Canada achieves its goal this time.
The “broadband gap” still divides rural and urban Canada despite significant investments already made trying to close it, said councillors and mayors attending the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) national convention held in Winnipeg this month.
“There’s a lot of money been spent on it and it never really happened,” said Tom Taggart, a councillor with the Municipality of County Colchester, Nova Scotia, who spoke during a two-hour ‘Rural Forum’ policy discussion at FCM dedicated to discussing needs of rural Canada and its specific economic, social and sustainability goals.
Whatever the holdup is getting high-speed Internet to the last mile, it must be fixed, because the cost of poor connectivity is outmigration and rural areas’ inability to attract economic development, Taggart said.
“Nova Scotia is having real trouble attracting people to rural communities because of lack of broadband,” he said.
Peers on Canada’s other coast echoed his plea, adding the issue isn’t access to broadband only.
“It is telecommunications in general,” said Leah Main, a director with the Village of Silverton in Central Kootenay, B.C. who said she is now paying over $200 a month for cell service and broadband “that is medium to slow.”
“We pay some of the highest rates in the world and they get higher the farther you get from the cities,” she said.
Insufficient bandwidth and network capacity in still too many regions of the country is high on FCM’s priority lobby issues, which has long advocated for a comprehensive, long-term plan for universal access to high-speed broadband.
FCM president Raymond Louie and Rural Forum chair Ray Orb, who is also president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities (SARM) spoke to the CRTC public hearing review of basic telecommunications services earlier this spring.
They pointed out that the CRTC’s own annual monitoring reports show just 25 per cent of rural households currently have access to broadband services at download speeds of 100 Mbps.
In contrast, 96 per cent of homes in urban and larger population areas do.
“Simply put, broadband Internet access has become fundamental to modern life, and has the power to transform rural and northern Canada,” said Louie.
Unfortunately, the reality is, by virtue of where they live, many Canadians don’t have this access, and Canada’s current approach to broadband policy has resulted in a “significant lag” in bringing high-speed Internet and technologies to rural and remote regions.
The true cost of low connectivity in these communities includes everything from resident outmigration to a difficulty in retaining employees, and inability to participate in the digital economy, Louie said.
And the true cost of low connectivity is felt frequently, from outmigration to unequal access to government e-services.
“Too many Canadians are without broadband coverage, while others remain underserved by insufficient bandwidth and network capacity to meet user demands,” he said.
Federal P.E.I. member of Parliament, Wayne Easter, who is chair of the Standing Committee on Finance, spoke to the Rural Forum about the 2016 budget and federal commitments to infrastructure. He agrees it’s an important issue for rural Canadians. He told the group access to information transportation “is as important as the railway at the turn of the last century,” and effective delivery of it to rural Canadians depends on not just how much money but how it’s rolled out.
That’s true for the delivery of all infrastructure programs, he said.
“It’s not just about the money that rolls out in various programs… the $500 million for broadband would be a prime example…. it’s how that money is actually rolled out to get the best advantage for the best dollar.
“I don’t think they (telecommunications companies) did a good job with monies the federal and provincial governments have put in the past and we as government should learn a lesson from that.”
The Rural Forum discussion was part of other meetings by about 1,600 leaders gathered in Winnipeg and representing both large and small cities, smaller communities and rural and northern Canada.
Al Kemmere, president of Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties, and the forum’s vice-chair spoke about 2016’s federal budget calling it “an important step forward to advance municipal priorities.”
“Several budget commitments have the potential to be a transformative impact on Canada’s rural communities,” he said, highlighting the budget’s 10-year commitment to $60 billion in new federal spending for infrastructure including roads, and water and waste water projects.
There are also new categories eligible for funding including culture, tourism, recreation and municipal assets.
Kemmere said the federal government’s preparedness to increase its contribution to 50 per cent of eligible costs of infrastructure projects will help smaller communities that have struggled to come up with one-third of project costs — projects under past tripartite funding arrangements.
Meanwhile, more highway and road projects will be eligible for funding now that a previous traffic volume threshold of 10,000 has been eliminated.
“Those dollars will help take us a long way in levelling the playing field between rural and urban,” said Kemmere.
FCM’s Rural Forum was established in 2001 with a mandate to advocate for smaller rural communities while providing rural municipal governments with greater access to the federation itself.
Kemmere said there has been much discussion since then about raising the profile of rural communities within the FCM itself. Last year’s inclusion of an action plan for rural Canada within FCM’s larger election campaign is a sign that’s happening, he said.
“Our voice has never been more influential than it is today,” he said.