Canada needs a Digital New Deal

We find ourselves in at a point where we have the opportunity to push transformative policy change.

August 23, 2021

2-minute read

The fact that Canada has failed to deliver affordable, accessible, and ultra-high-speed internet services to everyone who calls this country home represents a massive policy failure.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated just how critical connectivity is to our everyday lives, and how important being connected is to ensuring that everyone can participate fully in the social, economic, and political life of the country, no matter where they live.

Sadly, we’re a long way off from achieving that goal. Only 41% of rural households and just 31% of First Nations reserves are able to access services that meet the current minimum speed targets for broadband. Meanwhile, Canadians pay more for internet and cellular service than their peers nearly everywhere else in the world.

If we truly support a “‘just recovery for all’, the next parliament must not just commit to connecting Canadians, but to totally reconfiguring the way digital infrastructure is built, funded, and governed.

It’s time for a major change to the way we connect Canadians.

In the current federal election campaign, it is heartening to see commitments to connecting Canadians included in campaign platforms. So far, though, those platforms demonstrate a serious lack of imagination as to how they will actually accomplish their goal.

The sitting government has committed to ensuring every Canadian has access to internet services at minimum speeds of 50/10 Mbps (50 Mbps download/10 Mbps upload) by 2030. In their platforms, both the Conservatives and the New Democrats say they can do it by 2025.

Unfortunately, the 50/10 target is already out of date compared to what many urban residents in Canada and around the world can access. By the time we reach those target speeds and dates, such standards will feel as out of date as dial-up service is now.

We can—and must—set our sights so much higher.

There have been broadband policy statements in Canada since the late 1980s, but campaign promises about closing the digital divide have failed to do so. No party seems particularly keen on engaging in the real work of cleaning up the legislative and jurisdictional mess of telecommunications in Canada.

As yet, the closest any platform comes to this is the NDP’s promise to create a new crown corporation to “ensure the delivery of quality, affordable telecommunications services to every community.” But so far, at least, no party has pledged to confront the disastrous decisions of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

Despite motherhood statements about lowering prices and building capacity, no party has detailed the tangible actions it will take to connect all Canadians. Simply throwing funding at the problem without changing the way we think about and govern digital infrastructure is simply not good enough. Public-private partnerships don’t work, and critical infrastructure should not be a source of outlandish profits for the three private corporations that own 90% of the telecommunications market share in Canada.

If we truly support a “‘just recovery for all’, the next parliament must not just commit to connecting Canadians, but to totally reconfiguring the way digital infrastructure is built, funded, and governed.

What would a truly progressive approach to broadband in Canada look like? My colleague Dr. Wayne Kelly and I recently laid out a road map for addressing Canada’s digital divide. The three key considerations for meaningfully reforming Canada’s telecommunications and internet policy landscape are: 1) ensure the CRTC fulfills its duties as a regulator; 2) enforce structural separation by nationalizing physical broadband infrastructure and moving market competition to service delivery over open access networks; and 3) develop strategies for investing in digital capacity building and a “culture of use” at the same time as we invest in infrastructure.

Such recommendations are not new. Many people, including myself, have advocated for these types of reforms to Canada’s digital policy for several years. However, we find ourselves in at a point where we have the opportunity to push transformative policy change. Right now, several generation-defining crises (i.e., COVID-19, the climate disaster, and the pressing need to do the work of truth and reconciliation, to name a few) have demonstrated that continuing with “business as usual” is untenable. Let’s not waste the chance to get it right moving forward. Canada needs a “digital new deal.” It’s time to get it done.

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