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We Graded Canada’s Political Parties on Their Plans to Close the Digital Divide

Class is in session.

by Jordan Pearson
Oct 14 2015, 3:59pm

Image: Flickr/woodleywonderworks

Many northern, rural, and First Nations communities in Canada don't have an internet connection, and when they do, it's often expensive and incredibly slow.

For some remote communities, an internet connection is the only way to access long-distance education and medical expertise. Without broadband, regions where essentials like food are often difficult enough to deliver go without even more core services. The issue isn't just about being able to play Call of Duty online—although that is a factor for young people in these areas, just like anywhere else.

With this in mind, I've decided to grade the three main parties on their commitment (or lack thereof) to closing Canada's digital divide.

Class is now in session.

The Conservatives

For incumbent prime minister Stephen Harper's part, he's making a huge deal about rural broadband. Stephen Harper has been promising faster internet since the Conservative party jockeyed for power in the 2008 election, and he's doing it again in 2015—though not without taking a shot at the other parties.

"Justin [Trudeau] cares about big city issues, like legalizing marijuana. He doesn't understand the values and concerns of rural Canada," reads a Conservative press release from August about expanding the much-maligned Digital 150 initiative—the Conservatives' plan to connect most of Canada by 2017, a promise repeated in the party platform—with an additional $200 million in funding.

The Canadian government thinks 5 megabits per second is an adequate standard, but the US defines 25 megabits per second as baseline broadband

This bluster is perhaps unfortunate, because Harper's multimillion dollar efforts to bring internet to underserved communities have so far failed to close the gap in Canada's digital divide and left Canada in the dust of other developed nations when it comes to broadband access, affordability, and speed.

From 2011 to 2013 (the report containing 2014 numbers hasn't been released), despite the government's efforts, the number of rural homes with broadband access hovered steadily between 83 and 85 percent. Accessibility targets, on the other hand, have shifted wildly. The CRTC once aimed for 100 percent accessibility by the end of 2014, but the Digital 150 plan shot for 98 percent by 2017. Now, the federal government has its sights set on 2019.

At the same time, the Harper administration killed something called Community Access Program in 2012. The government-led CAP initiative provided both internet access and training for new users in thousands of libraries and community centres across the country.

Moreover, while the Canadian government thinks 5 megabits per second is an adequate standard, the US defines 25 megabits per second as baseline broadband.

Grade: C

It's more of the same: a continuation of efforts which have, until now, been been demonstrably ineffective. These folks are coasting. But the Conservatives are also the only party with any real numbers or targets in their plan, which is absolutely infuriating.

Watch more from Motherboard: The Lost Art of Canada's Pre-Internet Web

The Liberals

The Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau, have promised to invest $125 billion in infrastructure development in Canada. The party is dedicated enough to this figure that they're okay with running a mild deficit to achieve it, setting them apart from the more financially conservative NDP and Conservatives.

Still, the Liberals have been really vague on what infrastructure, exactly, that money will go towards. Public transit, "social infrastructure" like affordable housing and child care, and "green infrastructure" like local water and waste management facilities are all mentioned in the party platform, but no internet.

In the official platform, Justin Trudeau and his Liberals have said virtually nothing about the sorry state of internet infrastructure in Canada. But, in a June speech at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Conference, Trudeau noted that the Liberals would improve rural broadband access.

When I reached out to the party for some clarification on their infrastructure plans, I got a surprising answer: apparently, internet infrastructure will be a part of the plan, although they did not say exactly how.

"[The Conservatives] have cancelled rural access programs—including Broadband Canada and the Community Access Programs—and they have failed to invest in the necessary infrastructure," the emailed response read. "In contrast, a future Liberal government will nearly double federal infrastructure investment to almost $125 billion over the next decade, and be a reliable partner with the provinces, territories and communities to address their priorities, including connectivity."

The vaguery on display isn't exactly heartening. How much of that $125 billion will go towards internet infrastructure, and how? Will the party restore the Community Access Program that the Harper administration killed? These questions remain unanswered, but at least the party is aware of the issue, although you wouldn't know it from their platform.

Grade: C+

There's no concrete plan on display, but they seem to grasp which previous programs have been unsuccessful, and which necessary programs were cut. A return of the Community Access Programs would be very welcome, if that's on the table, and $125 billion is a massive pot of money to pull from.

Watch more from Motherboard: Oil and Water

The NDP

The NDP is supposed to be the party of the people—Tom Mulcair grew up with a very big family, didn't you know?—but their campaign has so far shown little regard for the issue of Canada's digital divide.

Although Mulcair did discuss rural broadband as a priority during a talk in Iqaluit last year, the only time the NDP has even mentioned Canada's digital divide during the campaign is on their official platform, which was released last week. In it, they list four priorities:

- Move to close the digital divide and expand rural broadband access across the country.

- Look to support the development of the next generation of high-speed Internet to support our high tech sector.

- Move to create a more open and transparent government by working with developers, academics and engaged citizens to use government data to solve problems and improve services for all Canadians.

- Continue to be committed to net neutrality.

Read that, and then read it again. Can you tell what the NDP is saying? No? It's probably because they're saying nothing at all. No numbers, no targets, nothing except vague promises to connect Canadians. This is unfortunate, because years of failure on the part of the Harper administration on an issue important to rural Canadians would make a perfect opportunity for the NDP to get some wind back in their sails in the final week before election day.

We can do better

That being said, the promise to support net neutrality—the idea that the internet should be a relatively open space where every user and entity is treated with the same standards and given the same service in terms of bandwidth—sets them apart from the other parties and demonstrates at least some awareness of key internet issues.

I would love to say more, but when I reached out to the NDP for comment, they directed me to their platform. In any case, in terms of the NDP's stance on connecting rural Canadians, I give the party…

Grade: D

It's like they're not even trying. But, unlike the Liberals, they did put the digital divide in their party platform, even if they're not saying much about it. Make no mistake: this is a pity pass. There's potential here, but they have to put in the effort.

Unfortunately, it really does look like Harper's Conservatives are the only party taking a stab at proposing some actionable solutions for Canada's digital divide to the public. This is not a good thing. The Harper plan has so far been marked by slow progress, inadequate funding, and shifting (not to mention low-balled) targets. We can do better.

Neither the NDP nor the Liberals seem to grasp this, however, nor do they seem to particularly care to make this an election issue. Until they do, Harper is free to keep touting his plan as the only real option. He might just be right, judging by the other parties' platforms and statements.

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