Rogers and the Digital Divide

    Jul 20, 2022

    OTTAWA—Don’t spend that five-day Rogers credit in one place, y’all. It’s now nearly two weeks after the outage that rocked the country, caused by Canada’s fastest and most reliable network. 

    The Rogers outage laid bare that telecommunications infrastructure is critical for participation in society, much less industry. Strong and reliable networks were missed once 911, Interac, and various public services went down. It is no surprise that the House Industry and Technology Committee wants to have a few words with Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne. He may have “shared the frustration of millions of Canadians,” as his tweet on July 8 stated. But, my dude, you’re the one in charge, where the buck stops for oversight of these companies and under whom one of the most important buyouts—the Shaw-Rogers deal—is now being considered. In other words, people in positions of power can’t feign powerlessness without admitting that this country is really a constitutional oligarchy run by a handful of wealthy and influential families. 

    But I digress. 

    What the outage should’ve clued us into is the need for the internet to be a public good. The pandemic has already shifted our habits, necessities, and preferences towards online association; there is no difference between the virtual world and IRL. They bleed into each other and have staked out positions in our lives. Whether it’s work or school, civic and social engagement, the internet is now the same as electricity—without it you’re in the dark and isolated. This also means that equitable internet access, which is currently a pipe dream in this country, should be a top priority for this Liberal government. But we’ve heard nothing of the sort from Minister Champagne, whose recent history in addressing inequities, given his championing of Bill C-27, is suspect at best. Welcome to the digital divide, where the connectivity differential between urban and rural Canada is real. 

    Ever tried to use your phone on Via Rail between Ottawa and Toronto? Then you know how frustrating one bar on a 3G network is. I can only imagine what dial-up is like. How do you watch TikTok videos? The CRTC recommends at least 50 Mbps download speed and the federal government aims to have the whole of Canada connected by 2030. Well, it’s 2022 and the federal government is no closer to realizing this goal than it was in 2008 when I started in the public service. Back then, the Connecting Canadians program to improve rural broadband access was called Rural Broadband. In fact, since the ’90s, the federal government has had various programs aimed at improving connectivity across the country. Given that we’re still in a spottily covered network paradigm, one could surmise that these programs have resulted in failure. A shift in mindset is required to introduce equitable digital policy, where currently only about 50 per cent of rural Canadians have access to broadband internet. And guess where race comes in? That number drops to almost 35 per cent among Indigenous communities. 

    And we haven’t talked about the cost: slower speeds cost more for remote residents. According to the CBC, in one Indigenous community it costs $130 per month for slower speeds, which is just piling economic and social barriers one on top of the other. 

    If the Liberals want universal broadband in Canada by 2030, they don’t have the policies to ensure success. Firstly, most of Minister Champagne’s digital policies around equitable broadband over-rely on funds. The problem with using funds for funding public projects is that it’s a neoliberal fantasy to getting anything done. The government has set up a $2.75-billion universal broadband fund that “supports high-speed internet projects in rural and remote communities.” That’s nice, but it is only project-based funding that gets things built but has little—if any—in the kitty for ongoing maintenance of those projects. Secondly, funds require extra layers of eligibility criteria that can be restrictive; thirdly, funds rely on economically enticing the private sector into completing projects that aren’t profitable. Fourth, in practice, these funds tend to have very low uptake, meaning there aren’t many successful applicants that get through given the sometimes onerous eligibility criteria. Fifth, assuming a moderate level of successful applications, unspent money goes back to the Consolidated Revenue Fund after the current fiscal year to pay down the debt. This means that politicians can claim they’re spending money on social programs without having to spend all the money they committed, realizing a greater reduction in debt levels than projected. 

    Even Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Canada’s backgrounder outlined the difficulty in getting private sector involvement in building broadband networks in rural areas: “The situation is different in lower density or more remote areas where the challenging business case can often limit private sector deployment.” You don’t say. 

    The Centre for International Governance and Innovation states that digital policy needs an overhaul if we want universal broadband access and, specifically, that “the first step is not to pour more money into the current broken system. Instead, structural separation should be our immediate intervention. Broadband infrastructure assets should be nationalized and governed as a public good.” I couldn’t agree more. 

    Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.