Canada has “no plan” to wire up remote communities that lack high-speed broadband connections, Canada’s auditor general said in a scathing report tabled in Parliament on Tuesday.
The report comes just two years after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, an Indigenous community at the border of Manitoba and Ontario, and vowed that his government would work to end the digital divide that leaves rural and remote communities without high-speed internet.
“This report says what we already knew, which is that there is no strategy to bring the rest of Canada online,” Laura Tribe, executive director of advocacy group Openmedia, said in a phone call. “What we keep hearing from the government is increasing numbers—80 percent, 90 percent—but until we’re at 100 percent, the problem isn’t solved.”
Canadian politicians have for years promised to close the connectivity gap in a nation that is geographically larger than the entire US but has the population of California. This has so far resulted in a series of moving targets, lofty proclamations, piecemeal programs, and ultimately big letdowns. Some underserved Indigenous communities have moved to build their own internet infrastructure, and in northern regions of Canada infrastructure is so frail that a single satellite outage can result in a total connectivity blackout.
The auditor general’s report notes that earlier this year Innovation Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) endorsed a high-speed connectivity target for 90 percent of the population—a plan that left out millions of Canadians who live in rural and remote areas. “For them, the government had no plan” to deliver adequate internet speeds, the report states.
In response to an April 2018 House of Commons report that recommended the federal government come up with a national connectivity strategy, ISED balked. “Instead of agreeing to implement a national broadband strategy, the government said that its current approach was comprehensive,” the report states.
“I hope that this gives [the government] some push and incentive to actually do something about this rather than just talk about it,” Tribe said. “The fundamental finding in this report is that talk is cheap.”
Some programs that the government has actually implemented are not being properly administered either, the auditor general said. The report states that a $500 million program to wire up 300 remote communities—slated to continue until 2021—has so far failed to maximize the use of public money.
Additionally, broadband spectrum auctions have favored large industry players by auctioning off large geographic areas, and licenses are set up so that the winners can easily fulfill connectivity targets by focusing on urban centers rather than rural communities.
Incumbents are also not incentivized to share their licenses with smaller players, the report states, noting that out of more than 1,000 licenses held by the top three telecommunications companies in Canada, only 108 sub-licenses have been issued to smaller providers.
There is some indication that the auditor general has already succeeded in nudging the federal government to action. Last month ISED announced that it intends to work with its provincial and territorial counterparts to come up with a national broadband strategy to ensure universal access, although details remain scarce on what that might look like. In response to the auditor general’s report, ISED said that it will develop a national strategy and noted that work is already underway.
It’s a heartening step in the right direction, but it’s unlikely that underserved Canadians in rural and remote areas—long fed up with the state of their networks—will be holding their breath.
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