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High-speed broadband is essential for rural and northern Canada (02/05/2016)

The following op-ed was published in The Hill Times on May 2, 2016.

By Raymond Louie, President, Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Acting Mayor of Vancouver
Ray Orb, Chair of FCM's Rural Forum & President of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities (SARM)

A long overdue conversation has begun in Canada about how to ensure large sections of our country are no longer cut off from an essential service which is taken for granted by so many others — access to high-speed Internet. For too long now, many people in rural, remote, and northern communities have either been forced to live with inadequate and spotty online services, or in many cases, no high-speed Internet at all. In fact, Canada's current broadband coverage standards for upload and download speeds fall well behind many industrialized nations.

In 2016, building a nationwide information superhighway is as important to Canada's future as building the transcontinental railroad was over 130 years ago. Simply put, it's hard to live without. Imagine a small business owner trying to compete in today's global economy without high-speed Internet. Or a patient waiting for crucial medical test results that are delayed because those results are not available online. Or a young person trying to improve their job skills without access to an online course.

But in fact, too many Canadians do live without it. A recent report published by the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) found that only a fraction of people and businesses in rural and remote communities have access to the upload and download speeds that are almost universally available in our urban centres. For example, almost 100 per cent of people in urban areas have access to download speeds of between 16-25 Megabytes per second (Mbps), compared to only 29 per cent of Canadians in rural communities. That's a significant gap and it needs to be closed.

Not only are a large section of our fellow Canadians being cut off from vital services, they are also being prevented from fully participating in Canadian society and contributing the ideas and the innovations that make our country great. Rural Canada makes up 30 per cent of the country's population and produces one-third of our economic output.  It is time to get Internet service in rural and northern Canada moving at full speed.

The good news is that this conversation is shifting from a debate over whether broadband access is an essential service to how we can work together as a nation to get everyone connected.

The head of the CRTC Jean-Pierre Blais recently talked about the importance of developing a coherent national Internet deployment strategy in Canada. As municipal leaders, we entirely agree with that sentiment, as well as the insistence that it will take a collective effort from all quarters of society including the CRTC, governments, and private industry to make it happen.

The CRTC is holding hearings right now to better understand broadband connectivity across Canada. FCM appeared there April 15 to lay out the case that high-speed broadband access must be considered an essential service. This means putting in place new funding mechanisms that will support universal access in areas not served through private investments or targeted government funding programs.

But recognizing high-speed broadband as a basic service is only part of the solution. The CRTC must also ensure the system adapts to ever-changing technological advancements by regularly updating Canada's broadband speed targets. Otherwise we run the risk of drawing up plans for the best system with the fastest upload and download standards today only to see that system quickly become inadequate to people's needs tomorrow.

Canada also needs to ensure our national system includes backup connections for parts of the country where Internet outages can leave people without service for days or even weeks. For example, remote regions where repairing a broken cable is a lengthy and complicated affair, or in the north where there is simply no backup for satellite interruptions.

Making sure high-speed service is available to everyone will require significant public and private investment. We will all need to work together to build this network. That is why FCM welcomed the federal government's commitment in the recent budget to spend an additional $500-million over the next five years to expand broadband services to rural and remote communities. These investments have the potential to make a significant difference in the lives of Canadians in underserved areas and should be taken into account by the CRTC as it studies additional mechanisms to fund the roll-out of universal broadband access.

Canadians have always been willing to work together to make sure that everyone enjoys the quality of life we all expect and deserve. Today that means pulling together as governments, businesses, and consumers to make sure that no matter where we live, a strong economy and connected, vibrant hometowns are always just a click away.

Page Updated: 18/07/2016