Canada’s digital divide is glaring – and rural residents say bridging it must be an election priority

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Paul McLauchlin says that as president of rural Alberta he would expect to spend all his time talking about agriculture.

But another topic comes to mind (he’s had five meetings on this this week): Internet access.

“There are literally people in this province who don’t have access to any broadband,” McLauchlin said.

The RMA has listed rural broadband access as its top priority for federal candidates to address. It is listed as such a serious concern as implementing drought and extreme weather recovery programs or tackling infrastructure collapse.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission broadband fund has set itself the goal of ensuring that everyone can access download speeds of up to at least 50 megabitss per second (Mbps) or download speeds of 10 Mbps.

At this speed, it takes less than a second to load an email and just under an hour to download a two hour 4K HD movie. But it can slow down depending on several factors, such as if multiple people in a house are streaming or downloading files.

Only 45.6 percent of rural communities currently meet this threshold. The number is even lower in rural Alberta – 37% of households – according to the Alberta Rural Connectivity Coalition. Indigenous communities face the lowest access, with only 24% of households.

“Digital poverty”

McLaughlin says that in the most remote communities of Alberta, his organization has found that only 10 percent meet that goal.

“I use the term digital poverty. This is what we are going through. And it’s not just rural Alberta, it’s rural Canada, and we need to bridge the gap, ”McLauchlin said. “What we are experiencing, boots on the ground, is really detrimental to the economy, education and the ability of rural people to participate in the economy.”

Canadians also pay some of the highest internet prices in the world.

Sheila Juhlin, who lives at Crowsnest Pass, says that although she has been able to access the internet that meets her needs in recent years, a neighbor just a 12-minute drive from Blairmore does not have a reliable connection.

And, she said, although it is such a vital service for accessing employment, education, health care or information, it does not always have to be. been taken seriously.

“I complained to my [previous internet provider] … And I said, “Well, why can’t we have such and such? And he says, “Well, that’s the price to pay for living in Heaven,” Juhlin said. “I found that really rude.”

What the parties promise

Liberal, Conservative and NDP platforms and leaders have all made various promises when it comes to internet access:

  • The Liberals promised an approach to use or lose spectrum rights, pushing national operators to accelerate deployment in rural areas – and if they fail to meet those targets, to reallocate capacity to smaller regional providers. They also say that they have already lowered the prices of wireless.
  • The Preservatives say they will build the infrastructure to connect all Canadians to high-speed internet by 2025 and allow more foreign investment in the sector.
  • The NPD plan to declare high-speed Internet as an essential service, create a crown corporation to provide telecommunications services, and require companies to end data caps for broadband.

“The NDP is taking a more interventionist approach and an approach more focused on consumer rights. The Conservatives take a more competitive approach… and then the Liberals sort of focus on the funding that they’ve already done, ”said Imran Mohiuddin of the ARCC. , a coalition advocating Internet access and funded by the not-for-profit technology accelerator Cybera.

The problem, Mohiuddin said, is that all party platforms lack details on how they are going to solve the problem, especially when it comes to increasing affordability.

And, he said, details are critical when it comes to an issue complicated by factors such as a monopolized industry, rapidly developing technologies such as low-earth orbit satellite broadband. and the complications of building infrastructure in remote and sparsely populated areas.

“We would like to see a more holistic approach under the umbrella of what you might call a national broadband strategy, with aspirational goals to achieve connectivity. [and] adequate funding. And then, too, a set of legislative and regulatory changes, ”he said.

These changes could include reviewing the telecommunications law to see how policy objectives might be changed to stimulate investment, reviewing the CRTC’s approach to wholesale broadband access, or engaging the proceeds of spectrum auctions – sales of frequencies used by companies to deploy services – directly into rural development, suggested Mohiuddin.

McLaughlin said he thought a mix of party promises would be ideal.

“I think the intention of the NDP resonates in some areas, especially in very sparsely populated parts of Canada. But I think we also have to push for a little competition, because it improves the quality.”

He also believes the Liberal-promised rollout of connecting all Canadians to high-speed internet by 2030 must be accelerated, even ahead of the Conservatives and NDP targets.

“This needs to be done over the next two years and there needs to be… performance metrics related to [those goals]. We are going to miss out on the change in the economy, ”he said.

WATCH | Pandemic sheds light on internet inequalities

Pandemic highlights Internet inequalities in Canada

As Canadians rely more on the internet at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people in rural areas and First Nations still do not have access to stable broadband internet service. 4:36

Internet access is also a factor that could prevent migration to rural areas, McLauchlin said. He said that as the Ponoka County Prefect, his office received daily phone calls from people considering relocating to the area from urban centers during the pandemic.

“They don’t ask about tax rates or anything. In fact, the first number one question we get is broadband access – if they can have internet,” he said. he declared.

Businesses are also looking to move to cheaper locations, he said, and the internet is key to attracting these investments.

Charlene Smylie, who is posing as a counselor for Parkland County Division 5, said during the pandemic she saw local students without good internet access sitting in school or library parking lots to access the WiFi for distance education.

“If they didn’t have the Internet… their education suffered,” she said. “We have [the Alberta SuperNet] it goes to municipal offices, schools, libraries and most cities, but it ends there. And why not take it a step further? “

She said all three levels of government will need to work together to connect households to the network, from municipal deployments to a provincial broadband strategy, to targeted federal funding.

“We’re going to use digital methods to continue to grow our economy and provide access to ideas and innovation. And if a kid in a remote community doesn’t have access to a great internet, we’re really losing the ability. for that child or that family or that entrepreneur to have access to innovative ideas, ”said McLauchlin.

“I think it goes beyond essential services, and I think it should be a Charter right, that everyone should have access to broadband access at a quality and at a speed that they want. allow access to this great and fantastic world in which we live. “


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