July 7, 2020
Canadians in sparsely populated parts of the country pay higher fees for slower internet services. In 2017, only 37% of rural households had access to download and upload speeds of 50 and 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) respectively, compared with 97% of urban homes. As with countless other issues, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated Canada’s connectivity gap.
Increased network traffic resulting from COVID-19 has led to staggeringly poor internet performance in rural Canada. Under physical distancing restrictions, this has translated into a critical inability to work from home, receive schooling, and access healthcare services. Not surprisingly, the past few weeks have seen a flurry of joint and unilateral responses from public and private actors.
To be sure, some of the world’s largest telecommunications providers have made moves to fill what they view as an under-tapped market. Elon Musk, for one, has applied to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to beam high speed internet into rural homes via satellite. Likewise, New York-based Xplornet has dedicated $500m to expand their operations and roll out faster and more reliable high-speed internet across rural Canada.
The Federal Government has also redoubled its efforts to tackle this issue. Recently, Canada’s Minister of Rural Economic Development, Maryam Monsef, floated the idea of making internet access a public utility and announced plans to dole out funding for projects aimed at bringing high-speed internet to remote areas across Canada.
While details of the ‘Universal Broadband Fund’ are lacking, it is expected to pay out up to $1-billion over 10 years to subsidize the cost of building rural networks, which often yield low returns. Further, in keeping with calls from organizations such as OpenMedia, the federal government has indicated a desire to reserve some of the funding for smaller providers, municipalities, and Indigenous communities.
To get a sense of how this process may unfold, interested parties may consider perusing the eligibility, assessment, and selection procedure followed under the CRTC’s pre-existing and ongoing Broadband Fund, which offered $750 million over a five-year period to close Canada’s digital divide. The second call for applications for this fund closed on June 1, 2020.
Even with present circumstances set aside, internet access is no longer a luxury. The COVID-19 pandemic has simply brought renewed urgency to address a longstanding disparity in the provision of this essential service.
Author: Luke Devine