Stakeholders applaud $1.7B broadband investment in Budget 2019, but want more detail

Laura Tribe, executive director of Open Media, is among those with questions about implementation and accountability around the $1.7 billion broadband investment announced in Tuesday's federal budget.

Industry stakeholders say $1.7 billion in new broadband investment outlined in Tuesday’s federal budget is a critical commitment, but more detail is needed on how the new Universal Broadband Fund will be implemented.

Budget 2019 makes a commitment to help every Canadian gain access to high-speed internet at minimum speeds of 50/10 Mbps, stating that 95 per cent of Canadian homes and businesses will have access to internet speeds of at least 50/10 Mbps by 2026 and 100 per cent by 2030, no matter where they are located in the country.

To make that a reality, the budget proposes targeted initiatives supporting universal high-speed internet in rural, remote and northern communities. Those include:

• Up to $1.7 billion over 13 years, starting in 2019–20, to establish a new national
high-speed internet program, the Universal Broadband Fund. The Fund would build on the success of the Connect to Innovate program, and would focus on extending “backbone” infrastructure to underserved communities (“backbone” is the central channel used to transfer internet traffic at high speed—the internet equivalent of a major roadway or railway spur). For the most difficult-to-reach communities, funding may also support “last-mile” connections to individual homes and businesses.
• Included in the $1.7 billion commitment to the Universal Broadband Fund, the
Government will look to top-up the Connect to Innovate program and to secure advanced, new, low-latency Low Earth Orbit satellite capacity. This process will be launched in the spring 2019 and will help bring reliable high-speed internet access to the most challenging rural and remote homes and communities in Canada.
• Up to $11.5 million over five years, starting in 2019–20, for two Statistics Canada surveys to measure household access and use of the internet and business online behaviour. The data would be aimed at enhancing understanding of how digital issues are impacting Canadians, and help inform next steps.

In total, Budget 2019 proposes a coordinated plan that would deliver $5 billion to $6 billion in new investments in rural broadband over the next 10 years. That plan includes support through the Accelerated Investment Incentive to encourage greater investments in rural high-speed internet from the private sector; greater coordination with provinces, territories, and federal arm’s-length institutions, such as the CRTC and its $750 million rural/remote broadband fund; and new investments by the Canada Infrastructure Bank to further leverage private sector investment.

Michael Geist, University of Ottawa law professor and the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law, told Broadcast Dialogue that a firm commitment on the issue was long overdue.

“The timelines on broadband are still lengthy, but the most important aspect is a clear policy of universal, affordable broadband access at speeds that exceed what the CRTC seemed comfortable with last year. It is going to take time, but a firm commitment on the issue was long overdue,” Geist said in an email.

Open Media executive director Laura Tribe said in a statement that while a much-needed target, the funding structure “leaves many questions remaining about the implementation and how the government will be held accountable to ensure these goals are met.”

“We absolutely need a national target, and it’s great to see clear guidelines for what we’re working towards. But for those throughout Canada struggling to get online right now, being told to wait 11 years may not seem very comforting. Will the speed targets set by the CRTC in 2016 even hold up in 2030? And even more critically –  will they be affordable? Right now we have an ambitious target, but not a lot of details or guarantees,” wrote Tribe.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) said the investment acts on the urgent recommendation the organization made last fall, when it appealed for a $4 billion investment to close the rural broadband gap, over a 10-year period.

“The national broadband strategy announced today is a major boost for Canada’s rural, remote and northern communities. In 2019, high-speed internet is an essential service—for businesses looking to compete and for our everyday quality of life. Today’s announcement is a strong response to FCM’s call to prioritize universal internet access for two million Canadians who still can’t access a reliable connection,” said president Vicki-May Hamm.