Mr. Speaker, although I am pleasantly surprised that the government has finally decided to do something about rural telecommunications, I am a little disappointed that it comes in the form of a motion proposed so late in its term. I suspect that some of the things the motion calls for will not be feasible in light of the constraints of the parliamentary calendar. The motion mentions two committee studies that will probably not happen due to time constraints.
I want to commend my colleague, the member for Pontiac, for making an effort to raise the issue of rural telecommunications infrastructure, but I must say that I would have liked to see the government take the first step, seeing as I have been asking it to do something about cellphone coverage for over three and a half years now. Right now, some major roads in certain rural areas do not have cell service. That creates a lot of public safety issues.
Furthermore, one of the weaknesses of this motion is that it calls for the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security to undertake a study to prove that improving wireless communications will enhance public safety. Well, everybody already knows it will. When someone gets in a car accident in an area without cell service, they cannot call for help and may have to walk five kilometres in the middle of the night, with kids in tow, in -40°C weather, with wild animals around to boot. Anyone can see that this scenario is not very safe and could easily be avoided with modern technology.
Cell phones did not exist in the 1970s, so it was normal to walk if you were in an accident in the middle of nowhere. Now, however, technology is accessible, and when people travel to parts of Africa they are often surprised to see that there is cell service everywhere. I did a humanitarian placement in Senegal and there was cell service everywhere. It was only in a very remote region of western Africa in a village called Tiaré, about a two-hour drive from Kaolack, that cell phones no longer worked.
However, in Canada, a G7 country, there is still no cell coverage along some highly-travelled roads. I think we can all agree that this is unacceptable. It is a matter of public safety, and a functioning cell phone can save lives in many situations.
It makes absolutely no sense to ask the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security to study this issue to show how important a wireless telecommunications network is to public safety. I think that the Minister of Public Safety has enough data at his disposal to make investments, considering the impact these investments could have on public safety.
Another important thing we need to talk about when it comes to wireless communications is the lack of a national strategy. In fact, that was mentioned in the Auditor General's report on high-speed Internet access in rural regions. The government takes a piecemeal approach to its programs and investments without ever establishing a national strategy or knowing where it is going. That has considerable repercussions.
Often programs are put in place or subsidies are given to certain companies so that they can have a faster Internet connection. As a result, the companies that are granted these subsidies crush their competitors who receive nothing and the cycle starts all over again. Unfortunately, the money invested in rural infrastructure is not being optimized. In other words, this creates a value-for-money problem. It is not clear if we are creating competition or if this is truly working.
It is also unclear whether investing in the private sector is more effective than investing in co-operative style businesses. It is too bad that a comprehensive vision was not explored.
We are also seriously behind when it comes to implementing wireless communications programs. For example, the latest programs earmarked slower speeds than the ones proposed in the recent CRTC rulings. According to current usage of high-speed Internet and wireless telecommunications, the CRTC believes that people should have access to 50 megabits per second.
Unfortunately, in the latest programs, the speed is often 5 megabits per second. We are perpetually behind. By the time various measures included in a program are implemented, the program is proposed, proposals are received and reviewed, money is disbursed and the program finally rolls out, it is already obsolete and fails to meet current needs.
I would also like to have seen something else in this motion. It makes no mention of the different areas in which wireless communications are especially important, particularly telemedicine. Telemedicine is an important technology that enables people to communicate with specialists, particularly people in rural areas, where access is limited. High-resolution videos make it possible to transmit live images of an X-ray, for example. Different things can be done and people can have access to specialists who will advise their local health care providers.
Education is another important aspect of wireless communications and high-speed Internet. Many people take distance education courses from Laval University, for example. They do the courses from home. Unfortunately, that requires quite a bit of bandwidth. Many people do not have high-speed Internet and are unable to take distance education courses because their Internet is too slow. Sometimes they do manage it, but they then have to pay exorbitant amounts for their data usage.
At the end of a session, it is not uncommon for students to receive monthly bills of $200 or $300 for watching the various videos required by their courses. I think there is a problem if people living in rural areas do not have the same access to education as those living in urban areas.
I appreciate my colleague's efforts, but I believe that this motion could have been better had it been drafted differently. That is why I would like to move, seconded by the member for North Island—Powell River, that Motion No. 208 be amended by: (a) deleting the words “, particularly wireless telecommunications infrastructure,”; (b) replacing the words “caused by extreme weather events” with the words “and for telemedicine purposes”; (c) adding, after the words “fundamental fairness; (d)”, the words “reliable and accessible digital infrastructure is critical to education given the development of distance learning, to access to government services and to full participation in cultural life;”; (d) by replacing the words “(d) the government should (i) continue in its efforts to support Canadians, especially those in rural regions, in accessing the digital infrastructure they need to innovate, create economic opportunity and maintain public safety, (ii) examine the possibility of enabling further investments in rural digital infrastructure, including by reviewing the terms and conditions of the federal infrastructure program Investing in Canada, to incentivize investments in rural connectivity by the private sector and by leveraging funds from other orders of government, (iii) continue to work with telecommunication companies, provinces, territories, municipalities, Indigenous communities and relevant emergency response organizations to enhance rural connectivity and ensure maximum preparedness in emergency situations;” with the words “(e) the government should (i) continue in its efforts to support Canadians, especially those in rural regions, in accessing the digital infrastructure they need, (ii) ensure value for money from investments of public funds in rural digital infrastructure, including by reviewing the terms and conditions of the Connect to Innovate program to include wireless in the program and reduce the risk that public funds replace private-sector investments, (iii) continue to work with telecommunication companies, provinces, territories, municipalities, Indigenous communities and relevant emergency response organizations to enhance rural connectivity;”; (e) replacing the words “(e) the Standing Committee on Industry” with the words “(f) the Standing Committee on Industry”; (f) deleting the word “significant”; and (g) deleting the words “and (f) the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security should be instructed to undertake a comprehensive study on the public safety dimensions of wireless infrastructure deployment in rural Canada, and report to the House at its earliest convenience”.