Madam Speaker, I am very pleased to rise today to speak to the importance of high-speed Internet to the people living in my riding of Kootenay—Columbia, and to all Canadians.
The Internet has become an integral part of modern life and an essential driver of the knowledge economy, yet there is a digital divide preventing Canadians in rural and remote areas from getting the full benefits of new technologies.
The failure of the federal government to make sufficient investments in digital infrastructure impacts Canadians' quality of life, compromises public safety and limits innovation and economic growth. In 2019, reliable high-speed Internet should be an essential service, available to everyone no matter their address.
As a former mayor of Cranbrook, I understand municipal infrastructure needs and the funding models local governments are working with. While infrastructure programs have traditionally focused on sewer, water, roads and storm drains, it was evident even a decade ago that high-speed Internet access needs to be considered as fundamental infrastructure. Unfortunately, in rural and remote areas the private sector business case for investing in digital infrastructure is not the same as it is for higher density urban areas. With market forces failing to connect rural Canada, it falls to government to provide this essential service.
The Canadian Federation of Municipalities represents municipalities making up more than 90% of the population, and almost 80% of its members have fewer than 10,000 residents. It is championing rural connectivity and is calling on the federal government to do its part.
Across Canada, for every dollar collected in taxes roughly 50¢ goes to the federal government, 42¢ to provincial governments and 8¢ to municipalities, yet municipalities are responsible for 70% of all infrastructure. This is not sustainable for meeting traditional infrastructure needs, nor for meeting the digital infrastructure needs of the 21st century.
When municipalities seek infrastructure funding from higher levels of government they are generally required to match funds. The typical breakdown is one-third federal, one-third provincial and one-third municipal funding. This poses a major challenge. For small communities like Cranbrook, which has about 20,000 people, generating $1 million of new funds for a capital project could mean a 4% increase in property taxes. Even generating the funds to produce shelf-ready plans required for government grants is a barrier.
The burden for getting rural communities connected with high-speed Internet should not fall mostly on these communities. The federal government needs to step up and give this issue the priority it deserves if Canada is to be able to compete in the knowledge economy.
In 2016, the CRTC set a standard for adequate download and upload speeds. While 96% of urban Canadians had access to those speeds, only 39% of those in rural and remote areas did, and 5.4 million Canadians were paying for substandard service. While some progress has been made, there is much work to be done. The Canadian Federation of Municipalities estimates more than two million Canadians cannot access a reliable Internet connection.
However, an Internet connection alone is no longer enough. Many of the technologies moving society forward require high-speed Internet. Traditional sectors like forestry, mining and hydro need to go high tech to stay competitive. Farmers too are looking to new technologies. High-speed Internet is becoming key to maximizing crop production and reducing climate change impacts. Online learning has become increasingly popular for retraining or upgrading credentials. Also, e-health delivery is expected to be utilized more in the coming years and could greatly benefit those who would need to travel long distances to access care and those who cannot find a family doctor.
While house prices have increased in urban centres, the lack of digital infrastructure may present a barrier to young Canadians considering relocating to rural communities. By contrast, adequate digital infrastructure can improve telework opportunities and promote work-life balance for young families.
In 2016-17, I conducted a series of small business forums in my riding of Kootenay—Columbia where owners identified the need for improved broadband connectivity for day-to-day business operations.
Paul, who manages a self-employment program in Nelson, recently explained the challenge of inadequate Internet in the area. The program's federal funding has been substantially reduced, however, video broadcasting and conferencing cannot be delivered in much of its operating area where some clients rely on dial-up or spotty over-air Internet connections.
This is not just a problem for businesses, though. One of my staff, Trina, is a school board trustee. She says that rural Internet is a challenge for many school districts across the province. Inadequate Internet access negatively impacts the technologies teachers can use in the classroom and limits the ability of students to complete homework.
Meanwhile, David from Wardner wrote me simply to say that he wanted the same unlimited data packages available for rural Internet customers that were offered in urban communities.
Lack of cellphone coverage has also been repeatedly raised by local governments and constituents. In rural British Columbia, it represents a public safety issue for those travelling remote, mountainous terrain who may need emergency help.
The St. Mary's Valley Rural Residents Association wrote me to advocate for improved wireless phone service in the area which was used for recreation, small businesses, logging and mining. The need to call for emergency assistance can arise from auto or industrial accidents, avalanches, etc. The ability to promptly report forest fires is also a concern.
While I support the intent of the member for Pontiac's Motion No. 208 and will vote in favour of it, we do not need more studies on rural digital infrastructure.
The chair of the Kootenay Boundary Regional Broadband Committee, Rob Gay, recently told me that around 60% of the region was currently covered by high-speed internet, mostly in the more urban communities. He said that in Kootenay Columbia they did not need another study, that they knew what needed to happen, which was they needed the federal government to continue to provide funding.
In the final year of the government's mandate, directing two standing committees to study this issue only serves to delay the action rural Canadians need now. These Canadians want a strategy, with timelines for getting people connected and the funding to make it happen.
In April 2018, the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology presented a report titled, “Broadband Connectivity in Rural Canada: Overcoming the Digital Divide.” This report was two years in the making and resulted in 12 recommendations to improve connectivity in rural Canada. There are sensible recommendations in this report, such as simplifying access to federal funding for non-traditional network operators, like local governments.
Last fall, the Auditor General released a report, “Connectivity in Rural and Remote Areas” which found Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada had accurate and detailed information on the current state of connectivity in Canada. The report found that the department did not have a strategy for working towards universal connectivity.
The Auditor General highlighted the need for a national strategy with timelines. The standing committee's report also called for the development of a strategy as well as the need to integrate issues such as affordability and digital literacy. Despite repeated calls for a national strategy, the Auditor General found the department was reluctant to do so without the funding to implement it.
This leads to the other critical piece of the puzzle, which is adequate funding is needed to fill in where market forces will not. The CRTC estimates it will cost about $7 billion to achieve universal connectivity. The Canadian Federation of Municipalities has called on the federal government to commit $4 billion over the next 10 years.
The government has so far committed $500 million through its connect to innovate program, which is appreciated but falls far short of what is needed. Meanwhile, the same government purchased an aging pipeline for $4.5 billion.
The CRTC recently launched another fund aimed at improving rural connectivity, but set the minimum speeds for eligible projects at half the basic service objectives established in 2016. An overarching goal should be to reduce the disparity between urban and rural Canadians.
The 2018 budget focused on strategic innovation, but did little to promote the growth of broadband in rural communities. The more the digital divide grows due to inaction, the greater the economic and social costs.
While I support the member for Pontiac's efforts to bring attention to this issue, the NDP calls on the government to make the overdue substantial investment in rural connectivity a priority in the 2019 federal budget. Rural Canadians deserve no less.