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Budget 2019 and Digital Inclusion: More Internet is Better, but is it Enough?

March 28, 2019
By: 
Mark Robbins
Senior Researcher
Institute on Governance

The 2019 federal budget being a largely a caretaker budget meaning that it lacks some of the more cynical pre-electoral giveaways that sometimes characterize election-year budgets. But make no mistake, there are important technology-related commitments in budget 2019 that are worth our attention. One of the most interesting is the continued commitment to rural and remote internet connectivity. Previous budgets have outlined new spending geared towards the improvement of rural and remote connectivity, but budget 2019 stakes out a significant long-term commitment for 95% of Canadians to have access to high speed internet (50/10) by 2026, and for 100% of Canadians to have this level of access by 2030. This is an expansion upon pre-existing spending commitments regarding internet access which, by the government’s own estimates, would bring high-speed internet access to 90% of Canadians by 2021.

The comprehensive package encapsulated in budget 2019 will include targeted investments both in hard ground infrastructure through the new Connect to Innovate fund and increased investments in low earth satellite capacity through the Universal Broadband Fund. All told, the current plan outlined in Budget 2019 (some of which admittedly includes previous funding allocations) will see a total of between $5 and $6 billion to be spent on improving rural and remote broadband access in Canada over the next 10 years. It is not just the public purse that will be putting its shoulder to the wheel; the private sector is expected to do its part as well and is being nudged to help accomplish these public policy objectives through the Canadian Infrastructure Bank, which is expected to leverage $2 billion in private internet infrastructure investment.

Improving internet access in rural and remote communities is a laudable objective and one which should be reasonably expected to come with continued political support, come hell, high water, or a change in government this October. It is hard to believe that just over an hour and a half’s drive from Parliament Hill, there are struggling rural communities that have difficulty making headway in the 21st century economy as they continue to lack high speed internet access. It was a humbling experience for me earlier this year to drive through communities just north of Toronto’s cottage country hinterland, where the lack of any internet access (including even mobile phone hotspots) was so common as to be both a regular punchline and a point of local identity. This is just in the relatively well-connected Southern Ontario. There is no shortage of far flung communities that spot Canada’s enormous landmass which still lack internet access altogether.

Make no mistake that we live in an era where reliable high-speed internet access is increasingly a fundamental prerequisite to our ability to fully participate in society, to the point where some debate whether or not broadband connectivity needs to be viewed as a human right. The tech-savvy catch-phrases of 2019 like “data is the new oil” and “the future of government will be digital” understandably lack a certain shine when your community is literally not connected to the digital age. Furthermore, when so many of the high-value innovations of today’s society depend on internet connectivity, lack of internet access comes with a concern about the growing exclusiveness of innovation writ-large. Not only will up-and-coming tech companies decide against locating in Grand-Remous, or Cambridge Bay, the innovations they produce are likely to be designed and rolled-out without these places in mind. If internet access is lacking, so is data, and so the business case for including these areas in other pillars of the 21st century economy and society also start to look less attractive.

The biggest question is whether the internet infrastructure investments outlined in Budget 2019 are too little, too late. Aside from the more obvious questions of how many of these rural and remote communities will continue to survive and thrive in the next 7 to 11 years while infrastructure construction is being undertaken (barring the very real possibility of unscheduled delays adding to the wait time) it’s worth pondering whether 50/10 internet speeds will be sufficient when they do eventually arrive. I’ll never forget receiving a $200 USB key for Christmas years ago that had the conceptually unlimited storage capability for the time of 2GBs. As the digital revolution continues to gain speed with no end insight, rest assured that we continue to produce and consume data at an exponential rate and our needs for connectivity will increase to match. How long will it be before 50/10 seems as hokey, quaint, and bordering on useless at a 2GB USB key? My bet is that it won’t be long.