Evidence of meeting #167 for Public Safety and National Security in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was solutions.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

3:35 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal John McKay

Colleagues, it's 3:30, and I see quorum and Mr. Amos is in his place.

Welcome to the committee, Mr. Amos.

This is a study of rural digital infrastructure under motion 208 and under the name of Mr. Amos, the honourable member for Pontiac.

If you would proceed with your presentation, Mr. Amos, you have 10 minutes.

3:35 p.m.

Liberal

William Amos Liberal Pontiac, QC

Thank you, Chair, and thank you to the members.

Thank you for this opportunity to discuss what represents [technical difficulties] for my fellow Pontiac residents, but also for Canadians across the country. Whether in rural or urban areas, this is a very important issue.

I believe the importance of this issue is clearly demonstrated by the unanimous vote. I thank each of you individually—and also your colleagues—for that support, because I think it was a unifying vote around motion 208.

When urban Canada recognizes the challenges that rural Canada faces with regard to what we now consider to be basic telecommunication services—good cellphone access, high-speed Internet—I think these are the things that bring Canada together when there's an appreciation of our challenges.

I think there's an appreciation at this point in time that rural Canada needs to make up for lost time with the digital divide. For too many years, private sector telecommunications companies did not invest sufficiently in that necessary digital infrastructure. Governments at that time, in the past, weren't up to the challenge of recognizing that the market needed to be corrected.

I feel fortunate, in a way, to have been able to bring this motion forward, because I feel that all I was doing was stating the obvious: that a Canadian in northern Alberta or the B.C. interior who is challenged with serious forest fires, just like a Canadian in New Brunswick, Quebec or Ontario who is dealing with floods, deserves access to the digital infrastructure that most Canadians take for granted, so as to ensure their public safety.

As your committee is well aware, the motion was divided into two follow-up components, one with respect to the economic and regulatory aspects of digital infrastructure. That process in the industry committee has been moving forward well. A number of witnesses have been brought forth. The process is proceeding apace. I'm looking forward to their conclusions. I've had an opportunity to participate, and I thank that committee for enabling that participation.

I'm particularly appreciative, Chair, that this committee has seen fit to move forward, even if only with a brief set of interactions on this subject matter, because Canadians across this country recognize that it is time to get to solutions on the public safety dimensions of digital infrastructure.

I'm constantly attempting to channel the voices of my small-town mayors, mayors such as David Rochon, the mayor of Waltham, Quebec. Waltham is about an hour and 45 minutes away from Parliament Hill. It's a straight shot down Highway 148 once you cross the Chaudière Bridge or the Portage Bridge. You get over to Gatineau and just drive straight west down Highway 148, and you can't miss it. It's just across the way from Pembroke.

In that community, they have no cellphone service. The 300-and-some souls who live there, when they're faced with flooding for the second time in three years, get extremely frustrated, and they have every right to be frustrated. I'm frustrated for them, and I'm channelling their voices as I sit before you. This is no more than me speaking on behalf of a range of small-town mayors.

I know the voices of those mayors are magnified by those of so many others across this country. That's why the Federation of Canadian Municipalities supported motion 208, because they hear those mayors' voices as well. That's why the rural caucus of the Quebec Union of Municipalities supported this motion, because they hear those same voices.

It is our responsibility to address this issue directly. I am very pleased to see that since motion M-208 was introduced in the House of Commons, digital infrastructure has been a major success, thanks to Budget 2019. The investments are historic, very concrete and very targeted.

The goal is to have high-speed Internet access across Canada by 2030. The target is 95% by 2025. Our government is the first to set these kinds of targets and invest these amounts. In the past, we were talking about a few hundred million dollars, but now we are talking about billions of dollars. The issue is recognized. For a government, this recognition comes first and foremost through its budget. Our government has recognized this. I really appreciate the actions of our Liberal government.

With respect to wireless and cellular communications in the context of public safety, there is agreement that, in any emergency situation, a cellular phone is required. It is very useful for managing personal emergencies, but it is also very useful for public servants, mayors, councillors who are in the field and want to help their fellow citizens. These people need access to a reliable cellular network to be able to connect with and help their fellow citizens.

I see that I'm being given the two-minute warning. I will conclude in advance of that simply by saying that I think it's important for us not to descend into rhetoric on this topic. Canadians deserve better than that. I read today's opposition day motion. With no disrespect intended, it didn't spend any time recognizing what our government has done but spent so much time focusing on the problems without getting to the solutions. In the Pontiac, people want solutions. They want to know how they're going to get their cellphone service, and soon. They want their high-speed Internet hookup yesterday, not two years from now. I know that every rural member of Parliament—Conservative, NDP, Liberal and otherwise—is working very hard in their own way to make sure that happens. I am as well. Right now I appreciate this opportunity to focus our attention very specifically on the public safety dimensions.

I also want to say a thank you to our local and national media, who have taken on this issue and are recognizing that in an era of climate change and extreme weather, we're going to need our cellphones more and more; we're going to need this digital infrastructure more and more, to ensure Canadians' safety and security.

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal John McKay

Thank you, Mr. Amos.

Mr. Graham, for seven minutes.

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

David Graham Liberal Laurentides—Labelle, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Mr. Amos, when you brought forward M-208, it had two aspects to it. One was for the industry committee to study these services, and two, for SECU to study the public safety aspect of it. Would you like to expand a bit on how you saw the split committee approach to this.

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

William Amos Liberal Pontiac, QC

My feeling was that there are most certainly economic dimensions to this issue. There are questions around competition. There are questions around the nature of a return on investment that can and cannot be made in rural Canada. These are real considerations that I think merit serious consideration. The independent regulator, the CRTC, has distinct responsibilities as established under the Telecommunications Act. Those obligations provide it, in many aspects, with a fair amount of latitude to achieve the public interest objectives of the Telecommunications Act.

I felt that those issues, both regulatory and economic, which ultimately help to frame how we will get to digital infrastructure access for rural Canada, are not the same issues necessarily, or they're not entirely the same, as the public safety issues. I felt that if the study were to be done by one committee on its own, public safety in particular might end up getting short shrift. I felt that would be inappropriate. I felt that one of the most important arguments in favour of making the massive investments that are necessary, and that our government is stepping forward to make, would be on the basis of public safety considerations.

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

David Graham Liberal Laurentides—Labelle, QC

Fair enough.

In terms of public safety considerations, both your riding and mine have experienced significant problems with dispatching emergency services at a time of emergency. You've described it at great length in the past. When tornadoes hit your riding, when floods hit your riding and my riding, emergency services have to come to city hall, coordinate, and go back out in the field. Can you speak to that? Is that the basis of the focus?

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

William Amos Liberal Pontiac, QC

I think for the average Canadian who's thinking about how their family in a certain small town is dealing with an emergency related to extreme weather, it's plain to see that when a local official needs to spend an extra 20 to 40 minutes driving from a particular location on the ground—during a fire or a flood or a tornado or otherwise—back to town hall in order to make the necessary phone calls, it's inefficient. It brings about unnecessary delays in providing proper emergency response.

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

David Graham Liberal Laurentides—Labelle, QC

In the same vein, a lot of citizens have trouble reaching 911 because there's no service available to do so. Phone lines are no longer up. If you're in a field or in the country—our ridings have recreational areas that are tens of thousands of kilometres—there is no means for people to reach emergency services. Would you find that to be true?

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

William Amos Liberal Pontiac, QC

In fact, there are areas in the riding of Pontiac where a fixed wireline service is not available, or circumstances where the fixed wireline service, due to a falling tree or otherwise, has been cut off. Yes, it does create a public safety issue, because many, many seniors in my riding don't have a cellphone. Even if they wanted one, they wouldn't have access to the cellphone service.

Absolutely there are issues, and I think it's important to address these in their totality, but to my mind, the conversation is headed mostly to the access to cellular. That's how people will most often solve the predicament they may find themselves in. I can't tell you the number of times I've had constituents come to me to say, “My car broke down. I was between location X and location Y. There was no cellphone service. I thought I was going to die.” That is a run-of-the-mill conversation in the Pontiac. In this day and age, I think we have a mature enough and wealthy enough society to address these issues if we focus on them.

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

David Graham Liberal Laurentides—Labelle, QC

To your point, though, there's been a lot of confusion in the public about what motion 208 is about, because it talks about “wireless” without being too specific. In your view, this is about cellphone service, and not about broadband Internet to the same extent. This is about making sure that we can reach emergency services, that emergency services can reach each other, and that the cellphone signal we need on our back roads is available to us.

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

William Amos Liberal Pontiac, QC

That's correct. My greatest concern was the cellphone aspect. In M-208, where I refer to wireless, the intention is to mean cellphone, meaning mobile wireless.

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

David Graham Liberal Laurentides—Labelle, QC

When I was younger, we had cellphone service in the Laurentians through analog. When we switched to digital, we lost a lot of that service. Did you have the same experience?

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

William Amos Liberal Pontiac, QC

That's going back a ways.

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

David Graham Liberal Laurentides—Labelle, QC

We had a cellphone in the car in 1985, and it was worth as much as the car, but it worked, which is not the case today. In most of my area, there is no signal, and it's becoming a very serious problem for us. I'm very happy to encourage this, and I'm glad you brought it forward. I'm running out of time here.

Where have the market forces been? We're always hearing from some people that market forces can fix everything. Why have market forces not solved these problems for us?

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

William Amos Liberal Pontiac, QC

Since the advent of the Internet as a mainstream technology and wireless mobile coming in to a greater extent, the decision in the early 1990s to leave the development of this infrastructure to the private sector and not to nationalize it has had consequences.

Where the return on investment for the private sector is insufficient in a large area where the density of population is low, it's clear that's going to bring about a particular result. We see it all across rural Canada: patchiness, portions where there's coverage, and portions where there's not. That unreliability of coverage has serious impacts, both on the public security side but also on the economic development side.

Nowadays, prospective homebuyers in your riding, as well as mine and so many others, will make decisions premised on a full range of factors, including whether there is good Internet and cellphone coverage. It has serious ramifications both on a public safety and an economic and sustainable growth basis. I think we need to address those.

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal John McKay

Thank you, Mr. Graham.

Mr. Paul-Hus, you have the floor for seven minutes.

June 10th, 2019 / 3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Pierre Paul-Hus Conservative Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Mr. Amos, thank you for being here.

We also consider it important to establish a better connectivity system in Canada. This is a major problem for many regions, particularly in rural areas. I am glad a Liberal member is concerned about rural areas. The receptivity was not the same when we did a study on another subject. This current receptivity will please my colleagues who live in very remote rural areas and who are facing the same problem.

You must have met with the Canadian Communication Systems Alliance, which represents telephone companies and Internet service providers in the regions. Every year, they come to us and remind us that they have to use Bell Canada or Telus towers to transmit their signals and that this is a problem. In the end, it is always about revenues, complications and agreements.

Has this factor been assessed in order to facilitate things for those companies that are already in place?

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

William Amos Liberal Pontiac, QC

Thank you for the question.

In fact, the executive director of the CCSA, Mr. Jay Thomson, is a Pontiac citizen. I met him several times.

This question has been important for some years now. All regulation and competition between large and smaller companies that would like to enter the market remains a challenge. Indeed, large companies have made significant investments and want to ensure their performance. Smaller players, on the other hand, have the right to access these infrastructures, under the Telecommunications Act, and want to use them. Ensuring competition and access as objectives in the act remains a challenge for the CRTC.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Pierre Paul-Hus Conservative Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, QC

If we start at the beginning, the motion raises important questions. I don't know anything about your meetings with the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, but have you ever considered the possibility of deregulating or regulating the sector otherwise? If companies are already established across the country and are just waiting for the opportunity to connect, this may be the first effort to make before going any further and saying that the government should invest hundreds of millions of dollars.

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

William Amos Liberal Pontiac, QC

There are several aspects to be assessed, starting with the success of the Telecommunications Act in achieving its objectives of competition and access, among others. There is also a need to assess the investments and tax incentives put in place in this area by successive federal governments. It would be worthwhile to focus on these two elements in all cases.

I would like to mention, however, that the investments that were made by the previous Conservative government—your government—in successive budgets were not enough to solve the problem.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Pierre Paul-Hus Conservative Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, QC

Fine.

With regard to public safety, have you assessed the current situation in Canada? Police and ambulance services already have autonomous communication systems and can therefore remain in contact during an emergency. Have you taken this into account? I believe your goal is to allow all citizens to use their phones anywhere. However, when it comes to public safety, do you know if we are well equipped?

3:55 p.m.

Liberal

William Amos Liberal Pontiac, QC

In general, these emergency services are well equipped, but there are still gaps. I had discussions again this year with the Gracefield Fire Department, which was having communication difficulties. However, when I spoke to the Canadian Armed Forces in the aftermath of the 2019 floods, they told me that their system was very functional.

What we are seeing more and more in the age of digital infrastructure, social media and technology is that anyone can help anyone. Public safety is increasingly managed by individuals and their neighbours, in collaboration with public services. It is therefore essential that everyone have access to a cellular signal.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

Pierre Paul-Hus Conservative Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, QC

Have you done any research on satellite communications? The satellite phone already exists, although its use is very expensive. Have any companies already suggested ways to reduce these user costs and focus on satellite calls in some areas where 3G or LTE networks are not available? Has this possibility already been evaluated?

3:55 p.m.

Liberal

William Amos Liberal Pontiac, QC

I invite the Parliamentary Secretary, Mr. Serré, to fill any gaps I may have in my answer.

Our investments in satellite communications in Budget 2019 are very significant and this approach could prove to be one of the best solutions for remote and other communities that are hard to reach using fibre optics or cellular towers.

In terms of costs and whether this is the best way to cover the whole country, I am not an expert in this field. That is why I initiated this discussion both in the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology and in this committee. I can tell you that Telesat Canada appeared before the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology last week and its testimony was greatly appreciated.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

Pierre Paul-Hus Conservative Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, QC

Thank you.