Thank you, Chair, and thank you to the members.
Thank you for this opportunity to discuss what represents [technical difficulties] for my fellow Pontiac residents, but also for Canadians across the country. Whether in rural or urban areas, this is a very important issue.
I believe the importance of this issue is clearly demonstrated by the unanimous vote. I thank each of you individually—and also your colleagues—for that support, because I think it was a unifying vote around motion 208.
When urban Canada recognizes the challenges that rural Canada faces with regard to what we now consider to be basic telecommunication services—good cellphone access, high-speed Internet—I think these are the things that bring Canada together when there's an appreciation of our challenges.
I think there's an appreciation at this point in time that rural Canada needs to make up for lost time with the digital divide. For too many years, private sector telecommunications companies did not invest sufficiently in that necessary digital infrastructure. Governments at that time, in the past, weren't up to the challenge of recognizing that the market needed to be corrected.
I feel fortunate, in a way, to have been able to bring this motion forward, because I feel that all I was doing was stating the obvious: that a Canadian in northern Alberta or the B.C. interior who is challenged with serious forest fires, just like a Canadian in New Brunswick, Quebec or Ontario who is dealing with floods, deserves access to the digital infrastructure that most Canadians take for granted, so as to ensure their public safety.
As your committee is well aware, the motion was divided into two follow-up components, one with respect to the economic and regulatory aspects of digital infrastructure. That process in the industry committee has been moving forward well. A number of witnesses have been brought forth. The process is proceeding apace. I'm looking forward to their conclusions. I've had an opportunity to participate, and I thank that committee for enabling that participation.
I'm particularly appreciative, Chair, that this committee has seen fit to move forward, even if only with a brief set of interactions on this subject matter, because Canadians across this country recognize that it is time to get to solutions on the public safety dimensions of digital infrastructure.
I'm constantly attempting to channel the voices of my small-town mayors, mayors such as David Rochon, the mayor of Waltham, Quebec. Waltham is about an hour and 45 minutes away from Parliament Hill. It's a straight shot down Highway 148 once you cross the Chaudière Bridge or the Portage Bridge. You get over to Gatineau and just drive straight west down Highway 148, and you can't miss it. It's just across the way from Pembroke.
In that community, they have no cellphone service. The 300-and-some souls who live there, when they're faced with flooding for the second time in three years, get extremely frustrated, and they have every right to be frustrated. I'm frustrated for them, and I'm channelling their voices as I sit before you. This is no more than me speaking on behalf of a range of small-town mayors.
I know the voices of those mayors are magnified by those of so many others across this country. That's why the Federation of Canadian Municipalities supported motion 208, because they hear those mayors' voices as well. That's why the rural caucus of the Quebec Union of Municipalities supported this motion, because they hear those same voices.
It is our responsibility to address this issue directly. I am very pleased to see that since motion M-208 was introduced in the House of Commons, digital infrastructure has been a major success, thanks to Budget 2019. The investments are historic, very concrete and very targeted.
The goal is to have high-speed Internet access across Canada by 2030. The target is 95% by 2025. Our government is the first to set these kinds of targets and invest these amounts. In the past, we were talking about a few hundred million dollars, but now we are talking about billions of dollars. The issue is recognized. For a government, this recognition comes first and foremost through its budget. Our government has recognized this. I really appreciate the actions of our Liberal government.
With respect to wireless and cellular communications in the context of public safety, there is agreement that, in any emergency situation, a cellular phone is required. It is very useful for managing personal emergencies, but it is also very useful for public servants, mayors, councillors who are in the field and want to help their fellow citizens. These people need access to a reliable cellular network to be able to connect with and help their fellow citizens.
I see that I'm being given the two-minute warning. I will conclude in advance of that simply by saying that I think it's important for us not to descend into rhetoric on this topic. Canadians deserve better than that. I read today's opposition day motion. With no disrespect intended, it didn't spend any time recognizing what our government has done but spent so much time focusing on the problems without getting to the solutions. In the Pontiac, people want solutions. They want to know how they're going to get their cellphone service, and soon. They want their high-speed Internet hookup yesterday, not two years from now. I know that every rural member of Parliament—Conservative, NDP, Liberal and otherwise—is working very hard in their own way to make sure that happens. I am as well. Right now I appreciate this opportunity to focus our attention very specifically on the public safety dimensions.
I also want to say a thank you to our local and national media, who have taken on this issue and are recognizing that in an era of climate change and extreme weather, we're going to need our cellphones more and more; we're going to need this digital infrastructure more and more, to ensure Canadians' safety and security.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Since the advent of the Internet as a mainstream technology and wireless mobile coming in to a greater extent, the decision in the early 1990s to leave the development of this infrastructure to the private sector and not to nationalize it has had consequences.
Where the return on investment for the private sector is insufficient in a large area where the density of population is low, it's clear that's going to bring about a particular result. We see it all across rural Canada: patchiness, portions where there's coverage, and portions where there's not. That unreliability of coverage has serious impacts, both on the public security side but also on the economic development side.
Nowadays, prospective homebuyers in your riding, as well as mine and so many others, will make decisions premised on a full range of factors, including whether there is good Internet and cellphone coverage. It has serious ramifications both on a public safety and an economic and sustainable growth basis. I think we need to address those.
Mr. Amos, thank you for being here.
We also consider it important to establish a better connectivity system in Canada. This is a major problem for many regions, particularly in rural areas. I am glad a Liberal member is concerned about rural areas. The receptivity was not the same when we did a study on another subject. This current receptivity will please my colleagues who live in very remote rural areas and who are facing the same problem.
You must have met with the Canadian Communication Systems Alliance, which represents telephone companies and Internet service providers in the regions. Every year, they come to us and remind us that they have to use Bell Canada or Telus towers to transmit their signals and that this is a problem. In the end, it is always about revenues, complications and agreements.
Has this factor been assessed in order to facilitate things for those companies that are already in place?
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Amos, thank you for being here and for bringing this motion forward.
So long as we're talking about the content of different motions, I'd like to know something, because I'm intrigued. Why was a study commissioned at the outset? I listened to the discussions with Mr. Graham and Mr. Paul-Hus. For your part, you talked about the work of mayors, councillors or political leaders in your community. So there seems to be a clear consensus on the problem.
Rather than asking for further study by a parliamentary committee, why not introduce a motion or bill requiring the government to make changes and take action on this issue? Such a motion would have identified the problem and the House would have asked the government to do something about it. This would have had more impact, especially since there are only about ten days left in the current parliamentary session.
Allow me to interrupt you.
Regarding the municipal actors in our ridings, I regularly speak with Mr. Jacques Ladouceur, who is the mayor of Richelieu as well as the reeve of the Rouville RCM. If there is not much traffic, it will take you 35 or 40 minutes to get from Richelieu to Montreal. It's not very far away. It is a constituency with rural areas, but it is not necessarily a rural constituency.
M. Ladouceur told me that you can throw all the money you want out the window, but—you recognize this in part in your motion—the CRTC relies on certain rules to assess the quality of the Internet connection. I am not an expert in this field and I rely, as we all do, on local actors who know about it. The CRTC measures the quality of the Internet connection in a certain way. If there is a place on the map where there is a certain band quality, the area is not considered a priority. Thirty-five minutes from Montreal, it is conceivable that we could find a house on one range that has a good quality band, but this is not the case for the other houses, and all of them are penalized.
I thank the for demonstrating an openness to speak to municipal officials in my riding. The mayors in my riding recognize the problem and I have no doubt that it is the same in yours.
Why limit ourselves to saying that the government has made investments and that we will look into the matter? Why didn't you approach this more forcefully? Money is all well and good, but you need something else. You and the elected municipal officials in your riding have identified the problem. Why don't you send a message to the House that something more needs to be done, such as changing the CRTC rules?
I believe that the process leading to these changes—whether legislative, regulatory or fiscal—has begun. The Telecommunications Act is being reformed. I am sure that this will be the subject of important discussions during this election period and following the election. This is the right time to present concrete solutions.
Yes, we can go directly to the CRTC, and that's what we did last week. Commission representatives appeared before the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology to discuss regulatory issues and its investments. Indeed, the CRTC has a $750 million fund that comes solely from telecommunications companies and not directly from taxpayers. All these discussions are taking place right now, but there is no easy solution. That is the issue. That is why I asked for these two studies. We cannot take certain things for granted. As a voter, I would like a political party to propose not one solution, but a range of solutions, whether it involves the spectrum, the tax aspect, investments or regulation.
Do we now have all the solutions to these problems? I don't think so. That is why I am opening the discussion. I believe in the potential of 338 members of Parliament who care about rural Canada.
When it comes to infrastructure planning, setting the right priorities is key. In terms of economic drivers, cell phone and Internet service is a priority. It enables economic growth. In fact, it's a must-have. In order to do business, people need a cell phone and Internet access, without which, success is merely wishful thinking. This priority benefits the community as a whole.
We are talking about public safety, however, and the issue is whether the infrastructure to address the social, business and economic concerns raised should include bandwidth for the exclusive use of first responders in the event of a disaster, such as in the north. I remember what happened with the Fort McMurray fires. Police and firefighters weren't using the same bandwidth to communicate with one another, and, in some cases, they weren't able to communicate at all. In situations like that, having dedicated lines and matching infrastructure is necessary.
How, then, should requirements be prioritized when implementing the infrastructure?
Thank you, Mr. Amos, for being here today.
You won't get any argument from me or anyone in my riding about the need for rural infrastructure and connectivity. My riding is about 30,000 square kilometres and most of it is a rural area that struggles with connectivity issues from end to end.
As one example, one of the counties had asked for $2 million from the connect to innovate funding stream that came out a year and a half or so ago, for the beginning sections of a broadband plan for their region to provide a lot of necessary services to their constituents. They got $200,000 of their $2-million ask out of the $500 million that was rolled out across the country. That was a disappointment to them and to me, but it also put them in the very tough spot of how to move forward with one-tenth of what their ask was. How do you get things done?
I know you weren't here for this, but if you compare that with the rural crime study we just did, one of the things we looked at through this rural crime study was.... It was all about public safety and there are many areas where people couldn't access law enforcement through telephone service, 911, because there wasn't the infrastructure in place to do that.
Right now some of the people in rural Canada whom I've chatted with since that study on rural crime are wondering whether.... Now we're talking about doing digital infrastructure for rural Canada, but we couldn't give the same attention to crime and it's about public safety. They're wondering about how credible the ability to roll this out actually is.
I guess my question for you, sir, is this. Beyond the connect to innovate money that's been set aside for this and has been rolled out, is there any thought to or do you have any idea of whether the infrastructure bank that's been set up by this government...or how much of that has been rolled out to rural Internet projects?
Maybe I'll start with the beginning of your question. You represent a riding of 30,000 square kilometres. Pontiac is 77,000 square kilometres. We're talking about big ridings here with great needs. All of our communities across rural Canada are playing catch-up. That is the simple reality. I'm not saying this to be partisan, but it is a simple fact that the previous Harper administration did not invest sufficiently in this, and that put us behind the eight ball.
We're now coming up with government programs that put carrots in front of telecommunications companies, that create incentives to invest more; and the connect to innovate program has had a number of major successes. The funding is rolling out presently, but I think there's a recognition that we need to do so much more because of situations like the one you're pointing out. I'm sure there is more than $200,000 worth of Internet infrastructure needs in your region, and we need to get to that point. Budget 2019 is really going to help us get there.
With respect to the Infrastructure Bank, the budget was quite clear that it would be contemplated as a source of financing. I'm looking forward to Minister , our Minister of Rural Economic Development, coming forward with a plan for a rural economic development strategy, and to her collaboration with our Minister of Infrastructure, , to bring forth a plan to show us how more capital can be brought to bear, because at the end of the day, it is going to be about incentivizing private sector companies or—
Mr. Amos, one of the bases of Quebec's forest fire protection agency—the Société de protection des forêts contre le feu, or SOPFEU—is located in your riding, in Maniwaki. Last weekend, an event was held for aviation enthusiasts, Rendez-vous aérien. It was no doubt great fun. I wish I could've been there.
The SOPFEU has a low-frequency radio service across all of Quebec. It works throughout southern Quebec, at 55° or 56° north latitude. The cell phone service is entirely high-frequency, beginning at 400 MHz and even higher.
Since you've been in Parliament, have any telecommunications companies come to you with creative solutions outside the box? The focus is always on 5G and 24 GHz. You and I will agree that 24 GHz service would be tough to implement. Have any companies ever approached you with creative solutions?
I want to thank the presenter, Mr. Amos, for presenting this. As my counterpart said here, I'm very much in favour of trying to connect this country of ours to have cell coverage.
I notice that part (iii) of the text of your motion says:
(iii) continue to work with telecommunication companies, provinces, territories, municipalities, Indigenous communities and relevant emergency response organizations
That's the part of this that kind of interests me. Most provinces have set up an emergency communications program that interconnects the ambulance service, police service and fire service. That has been in place for many years across most of the country that I'm aware of.
Have you talked to or approached the provincial governments, municipal governments or territorial counterparts to see what part they thought we should play? As I see it, it cannot be done by industry alone. It is not going to give us that connectivity on its own.
Your riding is about the same size as mine, Mr. Amos. I think I have about as much uninhabited land and about the same number of municipalities and counties. I have 11 counties and they're all fighting independently to try to get this service, but it's not profitable for industry. I think there is a need for our counties, our provinces, our federal government and industry to communicate.
I'm wondering if you have had any communications within your area as to where they think we should fit in. It's a big dollar amount. The money you mentioned—the $750 million—is just scratching the surface if we're going to give Canada equal coverage from one end to the other. It's going to be in the billions. Industry has told us that realistically it's probably more like $5 billion to $7 billion to connect Canada.
I wonder if you would comment on that.
Thank you for your question, and I would like to thank you also for being such a great colleague. We've worked together on the environment committee, and during our trip out west we had the pleasure of enjoying a little portion of your very special and very beautiful riding. I won't forget that.
You've asked about the role of the provincial governments and what my experience has been on that front as we try to amass the funding required to get to a multi-billion dollar solution. I think you're right. I've heard different numbers; I've heard the $15 billion figure bandied about.
Regardless of that, I think one of the things that has changed since our election in 2015 is a willingness of the provinces to engage in a more serious fashion with more serious provincial investments. I can speak for the situation in Quebec, where the connect to innovate program was matched by provincial funds. In the Pontiac, I've had the opportunity to announce over $20 million in new high-speed Internet funding. All of the federal contributions were matched by provincial contributions. I'd say roughly about a bit north of 50% of the total of that $20 million was federal and provincial investments.
I think we're turning a bit of a corner in the sense that despite the fact that the jurisdiction around telecommunications is clearly understood to be federal, there's a recognition that the fiscal responsibility is simply too large for one level of government to bear.