It’s been four years since the CRTC formally declared broadband internet an essential service. But if we needed a reminder of just how critical connectivity is to our daily lives, we need only look to the revolutionary shift to virtual learning, working and communicating that has been necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic. The transition to online living was easily available for most Canadians who already have access to high speed connectivity. According to the CRTC, close to 86 per cent of Canadian households have reliable broadband internet. However, that percentage falls to just 40 per cent in the rural areas.
One of the primary reasons for this gap is that government targets and funding for rural connectivity are not better coordinated or ambitious enough. While the recently announced Universal Broadband Fund (UBF) of $150 million for projects to be completed by next November is a welcome announcement, individual funding programs have historically been capped, restricting the number of projects that can proceed. To reach the universal service objective in the next five years, government programs should adopt a business-driven approach to coordinate and unleash both funding and spectrum (the invisible radio waves that transmit information like phone calls and data over a wireless network).
Another challenge to rural connectivity is that many private companies have historically worked alone, relying solely on whether or not a reasonable return is achievable to support the investment in infrastructure. In most cases, rural connectivity does not provide the return on investment needed for those private businesses to proceed on their own.
The solution to these issues lies in a stronger working relationship between the public and private sectors. We believe that better collaboration between all levels of government and the private sector – for example, the internet service providers (ISPs) that will actually build the networks – could dramatically reduce the time it takes to connect all Canadians in half, from 10 to five years.
One way to achieve this may be for government programs to apply a private sector approach with a public benefits objective in mind. This could be accomplished by applying three principles.
1. Better coordination between funding programs for rural broadband
Currently, funding programs for rural broadband that exist at the federal and provincial levels are often not complementary. Greater collaboration between levels of governments would streamline existing funding opportunities and maximize the money available to support larger rural and Indigenous expansion projects.
The UBF will be an interesting test case in this regard in terms of how it will fit into the ecosystem of funding programs. The B.C. government announced in September an injection of $90 million to encourage the rapid expansion of high-speed internet access for projects that can be completed by October 31, 2021. Initial applications have already been submitted. With different project timelines and criteria for success in the provincial plan compared to the UBF, there is a clear opportunity to coordinate the two in order to align eligibility criteria, timelines, and outcomes, and maximize the funding made available by the different levels of government.
TELUS knows about the need to coordinate from experience. We recently completed a project to connect 14 communities on Quebec’s lower North Shore that are only accessible by snowmobile, boat, or helicopter, and we will install fibre optics in 61 Indigenous communities across B.C. and Quebec including more than 20,000 homes, schools, governments and health centres. The work will be completed by the end of 2020.
None of this would have been possible without coordination between a number of private and government funding initiatives that allowed us to align dates, criteria and assessments of the projects. Collaboration between Indigenous, federal and provincial governments, as well as partners like the All Nations Trust Company (ANTCO), will provide these communities with the same world-class high-speed connectivity found in downtown Vancouver, Toronto, or Tokyo.
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2. Focus on the economic and social outcomes
Governments should measure success according to real outcomes, like the number of households and businesses connected, and the speed and reliability of the network. Canadian network operators have used this approach when building networks in more populated areas for years, focusing on outcomes to allocate capital. The result has been award-winning networks that deliver the fastest and most reliable internet in the world to millions of Canadians.
Compare this to Australia’s National Broadband Network, or NBN, that has spent more than $50 billion on its program to connect 93 per cent of Australian homes to a fibre-optic network. Famously plagued by issues, NBN has had to make compromises on its goal. Thirteen years into the project, it has enabled connected services for only 7.8 million homes and businesses. Now, NBN is faced with the prospect of having to invest even more money for upgrades just to reach its original goals.
3. Improve how spectrum is allocated and used to enable wireless solutions
As wireless solutions will work best in many communities — particularly those in rural areas — the government should carefully consider its spectrum policy, in particular the practice of providing “set-aside” spectrum for regional carriers (essentially, providing spectrum at subsidized prices). Historically, poor spectrum policy has allowed essential radio waves to lay dormant in rural Canada due to suboptimal deployment conditions. In fact, 85 per cent of rural spectrum remains unused by set-aside eligible carriers. Imagine how much more connectivity there would be for rural Canadians today if that spectrum was actually put to use. Making it easier and more affordable to access spectrum in rural areas will enable connectivity faster in communities where a wireless solution is possible.
The throne speech and the recent funding announcement from the Canada Infrastructure Bank show promise that the federal government is moving in the right direction, but more work needs to be done, and with greater urgency. Through improved partnerships and a more coordinated funding ecosystem, more communities like Pakua Shipi on the north shore of Quebec, will have access to health care, even though their community is so remote it cannot be reached by car. More small communities, like Nelson, B.C., will attract global tech businesses and top talent. And more children, like those on the Witset First Nation, in B.C.’s northwest region, will be able to access their ancestral language and connect with Elders who can share their teachings to all who wish to learn.
For these reasons and many more, technology and connectivity are essential to us all, wherever we may live. It is clear that delivering the necessary infrastructure and making sure every Canadian is connected will only be possible through strong partnerships between the private and public sectors. We’re ready. Let’s roll up our sleeves and do this, together. Now.