Thank you. Sorry.
Lisa Setlakwe is senior ADM of strategy and innovation policy at ISED.
I'd like to thank the distinguished members of this committee for the opportunity to update them on our government's efforts to bring high-speed Internet service and mobile wireless service to the millions of Canadians who live in rural and remote regions.
First, I want to acknowledge the valuable work that the committee has contributed and is contributing to our understanding of this complex and vitally important issue.
From day one, our government has been working to ensure that all Canadians have an equal opportunity to succeed no matter where they live. I know this committee shares that goal, as do all members of Parliament. The unanimous support that this House has given to Mr. Amos' motion shows government and private sector partners who are working together to address the Internet and wireless deficit across the country that there is a real commitment to get this important work done.
Since January, when I was appointed Canada's first Minister of Rural Economic Development, I have met and spoken with Canadians from all walks of life in rural and remote communities from coast to coast to coast.
From my own personal experience of living in rural Nova Scotia, I have seen how rural Canadians make our country a more vibrant and prosperous place to live and work.
Though small in population, rural communities account for roughly 30% of our country's gross domestic product. They are the drivers of Canada's natural resource and agricultural sectors, and they are supported by dedicated workers who are deeply committed to their communities.
In his mandate letter to me, the asked me to develop a rural economic development strategy.
Since I started travelling across this country in January, I have listened and learned, and while each community is unique and faces different challenges, the number one on most of their lists is the need to be connected.
Our rural economic development strategy is in its final stages of development, and I can assure you that it will fully reflect the concerns about broadband and wireless that I have heard repeatedly throughout my travels. We know that, when it comes to digital infrastructure, there is an urban-rural divide, and I'd like to take a moment to look at some of these disparities.
Although more than nine of 10 urban households have access to high-speed Internet service, only one in three rural households have the same access. Lack of high-speed service means that these communities lack the essential services that urban Canadians take for granted. It means that Canadians cannot sell their products and services online. They must resort to accessing government services over the phone instead of online. Many farmers with multi-million dollar agribusinesses still rely on phones and fax machines to run their operations. These realities are having a real impact on people in rural Canada and, in some cases, are leaving them behind.
It's incumbent upon us as the federal government to work with provincial, territorial and private sector partners to bridge that divide.
The divide that we're talking about shouldn't be limited specifically to the communities in rural and remote areas of our country. It exists on our roads and highways where there is no mobile wireless coverage. This lack of connectivity is a significant challenge for those working in the transportation industry, such as truckers, for example, and it is a risk to public safety, particularly for rural Canadians, who need to be able to communicate along remote roadways, fields and natural areas.
Wireless coverage is also essential to the national public alerting system, which relies on wireless service to deliver emergency alerts to Canadians.
On a more basic level, rural wireless mobile services are as important to rural communities as they are to urban communities in terms of economic development, as well as personal use. That is why we announced the accelerated capital cost allowance, which is helping telecommunications companies make investments in rural Canada. As announced by Bell, Rogers, Shaw, Telus and Xplornet, this change will connect thousands of people in their homes and provide cell coverage along unserved highway corridors across the country.
With respect to both broadband and mobile wireless access, this digital divide holds back rural Canadians from participating fully in the global and digital world. Through the connect to innovate program, we are extending high-speed Internet access to 900 rural and remote communities and an estimated 380,000 households, with more to come. That includes 190 indigenous communities across Canada. This program sets the stage for increased investments coast to coast to coast.
Since launching the connect to innovate program in budget 2016, the government has leveraged $554 million from the private sector and other levels of government for about 180 projects. These projects will improve Internet connectivity to those 380,000 households and 900 communities, more than tripling the 300 communities initially targeted. ln total, through the connect to innovate program, 20,000 kilometres of fibre network will be installed across this country.
We are connecting households and business, schools and hospitals, as well as supporting mobile wireless networks. We are establishing fibre optic connections in the farthest point north in all of Canada.
These investments show that our government recognizes that access to high-speed Internet and mobile wireless service is not a luxury; it is a necessity. We're not finished making these investments.
ln budget 2019, our government has made an ambitious new commitment to ensure that, over time, every single household and business in Canada has high-speed connectivity. As you know, we anticipate having 95% of the country connected by 2026, and 100% of the country connected by 2030.
We are investing in tomorrow's technologies, such as 5G and low earth orbit satellite capacity, today. The budget announced $1.7 billion in new broadband investments, including a new universal broadband fund and a top-up for the connect to innovate program that will focus on extending backbone infrastructure to underserved communities. For the most difficult to reach communities, funding may also support last-mile connections to individual homes and businesses.
The Canada Infrastructure Bank will seek to invest up to $1 billion over the next 10 years and leverage at least $2 billion in private capital to increase broadband access for Canadians. The CRTC's $750-million broadband fund, launched last fall, will help to improve connectivity services across the country, including wireless mobile services. Broadband infrastructure projects are also eligible for funding under the $2-billion rural and northern communities stream of the investing in Canada infrastructure program.
We understand that our success depends not only on our government's commitment to invest, but also that of our provincial, territorial and private sector partners. That's the reason we created the Canada Infrastructure Bank, which is currently exploring opportunities to attract private sector investments in high-speed Internet infrastructure for unserved and underserved communities.
Overall, budget 2019 is proposing a new, co-ordinated plan that would deliver $5 billion to $6 billion in investments in rural broadband over the next 10 years to help build a fully connected Canada.
To ensure maximum efficiency and coordination and to bring maximum benefit to underserved Canadians, officials are currently drafting a national connectivity strategy that promotes collaboration and effective investments of public dollars. This strategy will outline clear objectives and targets against which progress can be measured; provide a tool to guide efforts and improve outcomes for all Canadian homes, businesses, public institutions and indigenous peoples; and create accountability and responsibility for all levels of government to contribute towards eliminating the digital divide.
I'm proud to be part of a government that recognizes that building our nation's high-speed Internet is as important as building our nation's roads. That's how we will ensure that all Canadians have equal opportunities to succeed, regardless of where they live.
Thank you for the opportunity to address the committee. I'm happy to take your questions.
Thank you, Minister, for appearing in front of us today to talk about this important issue. I think our ridings of South Shore—St. Margarets and rural Wellington County and the rural Halton region are very similar.
I would encourage the government to focus not only on accessible Internet for rural areas, but also affordable Internet. When we say that only a third of Canadians in rural areas have access to high-speed Internet, I think that's better and more accurately termed as a third of Canadians in rural areas have access to affordable high-speed Internet. Many more than that have access to Internet, but they choose not to put it in place because it is far too expensive.
I mentioned this in the last committee meeting and I'll emphasize it again. If you're living in the city of Guelph, you can get 100 gigabytes of high-speed Internet a month for $49.99. You can get unlimited high-speed Internet in the city of Guelph for $69.99. If you live a mile outside the city of Guelph in rural Wellington County, if you want 100 gigabytes of high-speed data, it will cost you about $300 per month. If you want 200 gigabytes of high-speed data, which is not unreasonable for a family of four with kids in high school who need to access online resources to do their homework, you're paying $500, $600 or $700 a month for that. Obviously, that's too expensive and out of reach for most rural families so they choose not to put it in place, because who's going to pay $600 a month for 200 gigabytes of data? That's $7,200 a year plus tax. It's far too expensive.
I think that is the bigger issue than actual accessibility to Internet in rural areas. It's the number one complaint that I've heard in the north Halton region and in southern Wellington County. They say that yes, they can get Internet, but how are they supposed to pay a monthly bill of $500. Especially, as you know, in the Maritimes you don't have access to natural gas, and neither do we, and you're paying $1,000 a month for oil heat. The marketplace isn't working for those rural customers.
Unfortunately, we didn't do what western Canadians did and roll out natural gas across all the Prairies to every single rural residence, and we didn't do what Bell telephone did and roll out Internet access, high-speed Internet, to every single rural household when we were rolling it out in cities. Now we have this problem where most rural families don't have access to affordable high-speed Internet. As I said, who's going to pay $600 a month, plus tax, for 200 gigabytes' worth of high-speed Internet access?
I think that is just as big an issue as making sure high speed is available. I bring that to your attention because I really think that's just as important, if not more important, than actually having access to high-speed Internet.
Sure, and I'll add to that.
People say that there is more affordable Internet for 200 gigabytes a month than paying $600. The problem is that it's not low-latency, high-speed Internet access. The problem with satellite technology is that there's a great deal of latency in the service. The problem with direct line-of-sight radio frequency Internet access is that it's not as reliable.
Really, if you want reliable high-speed Internet access, the technology that's best suited for a lot of these rural areas is cellular high-speed mobile Internet access, which is often marketed under branded products like Turbo Hub for Bell or Rocket Hub for Rogers. That is actually reliable high-speed Internet access with low latency. The problem is, as I mentioned before, that those plans are prohibitively expensive.
Most rural customers I know, if they can't get Internet access right now through those services, are more than willing to pay $500 to $1,000 for a one-time installation fee to put up a big aerial antenna with a Yagi antenna at the top to boost the signal through a coax cable down to the Turbo Hub or Rocket Hub provided by Bell or Rogers. They're more than willing to pay that one-time fee. The challenge is that nobody's willing to pay an ongoing fee of $600-plus a month just to get some basic 200 gigabytes of data.
The affordability is the issue, then. The vast majority of households are within range of a cell tower, and if the signal isn't strong enough, they would be more than willing to pay the one-time $500 charge to get somebody to install a booster antenna on their roof. The issue is that paying an ongoing cost of $600 or $700 a month for 200 gigabytes of data is out of reach for the vast majority of families.
We can roll out more cell towers and do all that kind of stuff, but if the pricing of these plans is at that level, nobody's going to be able to afford it.
That's helpful. We have an Internet service co-operative in my riding and it would be wonderful if they could bid on cellphones to provide it to that county, as opposed to having to do the province or the country. That's what I'd like to get to.
You mentioned in your opening comments, Minister, about the stakeholder telcos stepping up. With respect to that, it has not been my experience with the stakeholder telcos. They have been remarkably reluctant to invest in rural areas if it is not profitable.
If you as a community or an individual wanted them to install infrastructure in your area—for example, one of my communities that has no cellphone service, and I'll get back to that in a second—and went to one of the larger telco companies, they might say sure they'll install a tower for you if you pay 100% of it. There isn't even a cost-sharing option. When they start making money off that tower, because there are 1,000 residents around it, there is no revenue sharing back to the community that brought it in.
It's the same thing with Internet service. If I want to bring in a fibre optic line three kilometres down the road from where I am to the nearest connection of any sort, it would cost me about $75,000. If the 20 or so houses between us start connecting, then all the revenues go back to the original company. There's no revenue sharing once you force the private to invest.
I don't agree that stakeholders are stepping up. I think they're actually quite frustrating and slowing us down, not accelerating us.
One of the things about your appointment as minister is that you are under infrastructure. I think it's really important to put Internet and cellphone service as infrastructure instead of as service and I wanted to thank you for that.
The first Internet as an infrastructure project last year was in my riding, so I'm very proud of that fact.
I want to come back to Michael Chong's point from earlier. He talked about having access and affordability. Everyone has access to a Porsche, but not everybody can afford a Porsche. We have to be careful in what words we use. When we say everyone has access, it's really quite not true for huge communities that have nominal access to Internet. When you actually look at it, as I said, it's not realistic.
When we are telling the CRTC that competition is the be-all and end-all, I don't agree that it's necessarily the case. When we're telling them competition will solve all the problems, it won't. If you don't have any service at all, competition doesn't fix it.
What we need to get to—and again, this is more of a comment, but you're welcome to comment on it—is a paradigm where Internet costs the same in downtown Montreal or downtown Toronto as it does at the end of dirt roads, just like electricity does. We did this generations ago. There's no argument that it is 3.9¢ a kilowatt hour, or whatever it is where you are, here and in the country. As long as you have a hydro pole, you pay the same.
Can we get there for Internet and cellphone service? Can we get to where the service, the infrastructure, is what you're paying for, regardless of where you are?
Thank you, Minister and your department, for being here.
There's a saying that all politics is local, so I'll start out with a bit of local advocacy here.
Parkland County, which I represent a large swath of, was recently a finalist in the smart cities challenge by Infrastructure Canada. Also, in 2018, they were listed as an ICF Smart21 community in relation to its advances towards increasing rural connectivity and broadband.
In anticipation of this meeting, I messaged my local mayor, Rod Shaigec of Parkland County, and asked whether the federal government has been supportive through the connect to innovate program. His answer was that, so far, the federal government has not been supportive through the program. To quote him exactly, “It has been limited.”
They have made huge investments in building cellular towers throughout the community in trying to advance rural broadband for their area. I know this is an issue for places that are adjacent to cities across the country. You don't have to be somewhere north of 60 or far outside an urban area to have digital broadband access problems. As my colleague Michael Chong said, you could be right next to a thriving metropolis with adequate and affordable high-speed Internet, yet still have a dead zone equivalent to being near the North Pole. That's my local advocacy piece.
My next piece is that we had spoken to this motion in the previous committee. I brought up a similar motion last fall in the wake of the Ottawa tornadoes. There are a lot of things we can laud in the wake of this natural disaster in the Ottawa area, such as the effectiveness of our emergency alert management system. That's hugely important for all Canadians, but particularly rural Canadians who don't always get their local newspaper or don't have access to cable TV all the time. How do they get these essential warnings or alerts?
Perhaps you, in your capacity as minister, or your department can answer. Is there any movement on this and do you believe the government should set a minimum standard to ensure that cellular infrastructure can be powered independently in case of a natural disaster for a minimum standard period of time?
Thank you to committee members for allowing me to join these proceedings.
Thank you, Minister, and the hard-working public servants who support you.
I know that the good people of Pontiac, hundreds of whom are evacuated right now, many of whom are supporting family members, community members who are in the direst of straits, are thinking about the immediate term, about cleaning up and getting their house back to normal.
The conversations have already started around what we can do to make sure that next year or the year after if it happens again we won't be in a situation where we can't pick up our phone and call our mayor or our neighbour and get a sandbag or get some clean water or...you can imagine the scenario. This conversation has been repeated several times, and I appreciate that we can't change the lack of action, lack of investment from previous governments and the private sector overnight. It takes time.
What confidence can we give rural Canada that when it comes to ensuring that critical infrastructure is available, particularly cellphone infrastructure in those places where there isn't access, the investments we're making are going to help us to build that up?
Thank you very much, Minister, and congratulations on your appointment as the first Minister of Rural Economic Development for Canada. I think that underlines and highlights the commitment to the people of rural Canada. Obviously you're right in there, rolling up your sleeves. I appreciate that.
To Will Amos, the member for Pontiac, congratulations on your motion.
I would be remiss, Minister, not to mention the , who was appointed as your parliamentary secretary.
I am from Sault Ste. Marie, in northern Ontario. Northern Ontario is 90% of the land mass of Ontario, and there are a number of geographical issues and a number of remoteness issues, but I'm not going to delve into those. I am going to specifically talk about first nations.
There was an announcement recently under the previous program. Matawa First Nations Management connects four or five remote first nations in the Ring of Fire. It was important to do that for education, health care and remoteness. You know that there are first nations that deal with high rates of suicide because of their remoteness, and one of the things we've read about is the ability to connect people. The ability for people to support one other is important.
Bernadette, with that, I want to also talk about something you alluded to about the private-public sector partnership, because the private sector is involved up there. This is just a general statement. How important is it to you philosophically for the private sector to be involved, not only the big ones but the small and medium-sized enterprises across Canada and in northern Ontario?
Thank you, Mr. Sheehan.
With regard to indigenous communities, 190 of the connect to innovate program approvals were for indigenous communities. I think that's quite a significant amount and it's something I'm happy to see. Like you said, we know that in some of our more remote regions specifically, there are a lot of challenges. People there rely on the Internet for things like health care and support, so it's extremely important.
With regard to your question about small and medium-sized companies, I've seen such great, innovative programs coming out of smaller areas from these small companies. It's because they have a vested interest in their communities and they want to make sure that their communities are connected. Sometimes it's things like co-operatives. Other times it's municipalities that have started their own ISPs. I think it's extremely important to have them at the table as part of the conversations we are having with regard to connectivity.
I know that we have to look at...as I've said many times already today, there's no one-size-fits-all solution. Sometimes the best service will come from those smaller organizations. Sometimes it's going to come from the bigger companies. No matter how it comes about, though, it has to happen. I think that's the main thing I'd like to say: No matter who is connecting, we have to connect.
This isn't about a luxury anymore. This isn't about people binge-watching Netflix, although if that's what they want to do, that's great. This is about health care. This is about education. This is about banking. It's about growing businesses. It's about not having to go into a store. I was recently in a place in a rural area and I went to use my debit card. They said “Let's hope the phone doesn't ring.” They were still on dial-up. I mean, how do you grow a business when you don't have access to good-quality high-speed Internet? It's about safety.
All of the things you are saying are correct in terms of making sure we have all different partners at the table. We look at all different options when it comes to connecting people, but the ultimate goal is to connect them.