Mr. Speaker, it is very important to me to talk about digital issues in rural areas because 29 of the 30 municipalities in my riding are rural and, like other rural areas, they have serious connectivity problems.
On March 13, I met with Réjean Sauvé, who has been with the Coop CSUR for 12 years. The coop has developed expertise on rural and remote connectivity in several countries and criticized the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the CRTC, for giving big corporations preferential treatment and standing in the way of small co-operatives, which exist not to make money but to serve their communities' connectivity needs.
One of the problems is that programs like connect to innovate have been disastrously mismanaged. The Auditor General himself said so in 2018. For instance, one rule says that if a single household within a hexagon covering roughly 25 square kilometres is connected, no other homes in that hexagon can receive other services. In many rural areas like Saint-Télesphore, Sainte-Justine, Sainte-Marthe, Hemmingford and Saint-Anicet, as soon as there is the slightest bit of wind or rain, the Internet connection drops out. However, there are people living in these communities. There are students, business owners and health care workers who need to stay connected to the Internet. Furthermore, the problems affect not just high-speed Internet, but cell service as well.
This problem is so serious that small co-operatives hoping to offer services to rural residents say they are struggling, because they have to contact people in order to compete with a big company like Bell, as is the case in the Soulanges region. They have to contact people to perform periodic speed tests and build their cases. The resources this requires are out of reach for small co-operatives. They do not have engineers to prepare all these files, and it is hard to apply for federal funding to develop these services in rural areas.
The government can boast about its 2019 budget providing billions of dollars over the next 10 years. However, we want people living in rural areas to have a strong economy or access to quality education right now, not in 10 years.
Why does the government treat people living in rural areas like second class citizens? In a G7 country like Canada, there should not be a double standard for connectivity.
For example, in 2018, Bell received funding under the connect to innovate program to provide service in Saint-Télesphore. However, Bell is only serving 83 households at present compared to 400 households that were formerly serviced by Coop CSUR. The big companies only sprinkle money in rural areas. There is no real positive effect in small local communities. It is also impossible to obtain the timeline for the real results of the projects and funds awarded. It is all very nebulous and there is a lack of transparency.
In addition, the CRTC says access to aerial infrastructure should be shared among small and large companies, but that infrastructure is not available to small co-operatives like Coop CSUR. Small co-operatives run up against all kinds of obstacles when they want to help small rural municipalities, but big corporations are not interested in small municipalities, because there is not enough profit to be made off of too few people.
The bill introduced by the member for Pontiac is interesting, but previous Liberal and Conservative governments should have taken steps a long time ago to implement a national digital strategy that requires companies to serve all households in remote areas. That did not happen because those governments lacked any semblance of vision.