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Faster internet as slowly as possible: Ontario’s rural broadband plan

Five years into a six-year plan, Queen’s Park is still budgeting big but spending small

March 13, 2024

3-minute read

If you live in a city of any size, you might worry about whether you can afford fast Internet service. But you probably don’t worry about whether it’s available in your neighbourhood.

In rural and northern Ontario, it’s a different story. Broadband Internet can be non-existent, or frustratingly slow. Working online, or taking part in video conferencing, can be difficult, if not impossible.

Broadband is a basic utility, an essential service like roads or postal service, but we don’t treat it that way. The for-profit corporations that run internet service in our cities are generally not interested in providing it where it’s expensive to install. So governments at all levels subsidize the cost, typically by paying the corporations to build it.

Municipalities and First Nations have shown impressive initiative to make concrete progress on the broadband file, but universal access demands more money than local governments can raise. That’s why the governments of Canada and Ontario are both in the game. Ottawa has its Connect to Innovate and Universal Broadband Funds; Ontario has its Accelerated High-Speed Internet Program and other initiatives.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing accelerated or high-speed about what either level of government is doing. There is progress happening, it’s true. But it’s as slow as dial-up.

Last week’s report from the Financial Accountability Office of Ontario showed that the province had planned to spend $720 million on rural broadband in 2023-24. But it also showed that as of December 31, Queen’s Park had actually spent just over $78 million of the money—11 per cent of the budgeted amount. Go back into the Public Accounts from the last several years, and it’s the same story: budgeting a lot, spending a little. Since 2019-20, the government has budgeted $1.54 billion for broadband and cellular infrastructure but spent just $184 million—12 per cent of its target.

It is possible, of course, that the government is spending the money through some other budget line but keeping it secret. This seems unlikely: expanding rural broadband is a good news story, and the governing party has campaigned heavily on it for years. Also, it seems entirely plausible that a budget line in the Public Accounts called “Broadband and Cellular Infrastructure” would be the place to find expenditures related to oh, I don’t know, broadband and cellular infrastructure.

Since 2021, the government has repeatedly insisted that it is investing close to $4 billion to make sure rural Ontario is connected in “every corner of the province.” Government talking points stress that “this is the largest single investment in high-speed internet, in any province, by any government in Canadian history.”

Maybe so, but when will it happen? The 2021 provincial budget said that the $4-billion investment would occur over six years beginning in 2019-20. Three weeks from now, we will be at the end of Year Five of that plan. Where’s the spending?

Queen’s Park has quietly added nine months to its original schedule by saying that it will “bring access to reliable, high-speed internet to unserved and underserved communities across the province by the end of 2025.” But that’s still very soon: infrastructure takes time to build. The one individual project listed in the Public Accounts—delivery of high-speed Internet to Matawa First Nations communities in northwestern Ontario—began more than a decade ago. Work continues.

Also, in 2021, the province announced plans to invest $109 million in global satellite company Telesat. The purpose of the investment is to guarantee access for Ontarians to “high-speed satellite bandwidth… at reduced rates.” Yet in 2021-22 and 2022-23, according to the Public Accounts, payments to the company totalled just one-third of a million dollars. That’s a fraction of one per cent of the planned spending.

To be fair, it’s not that the province is doing nothing on the broadband file. In 2022, the government announced that it had struck deals to pay eight companies $1.3 billion to expand broadband access. By 2023, Queen’s Park was reporting that it had signed agreements to deliver broadband to half a million homes and businesses.

With a provincial election campaign just over two years away, it seems likely that the governing party is keen to deliver on its promise to bring fast Internet service to rural and remote areas.

But by budgeting a dollar and spending a dime, it’s doing it in slow motion.

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