National digital connectivity needed

Many Canadians take fast and reliable internet for granted. For urban residents, temporary signal loss is a minor nuisance. But for the two million Canadians without any decent connection, the consequences are more severe.

Imagine small business owners who can’t compete because they can’t sell their products online. Or a health-care professional who can’t access critical patient records. That’s the daily reality in many rural, remote and northern communities, where the lack of reliable fixed or mobile Internet is most acute.

In 2019, in a country like Canada, that’s unacceptable. And rural communities are working hard to change this.

We understand that high-speed connectivity is the difference between seizing opportunities and falling behind. It supports everything from public safety to modern education. With it, it helps businesses innovate and grow. Without it, communities are hampered in their efforts to attract new investment or top talent.

Through our voice at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, rural communities have made important strides in improving access. FCM applauded the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) 2016 decision to declare broadband internet a “universal service objective.” And federal investments like the $500 million Connect to Innovate program and the $750 million Broadband Fund are good first steps in bringing service to hard-to-reach areas.

But the job is not done. Achieving universal broadband and mobile access requires even stronger federal leadership — starting March 19, the day federal budget will be delivered.

For months, FCM has been clear that this year’s federal budget must include a national broadband strategy. Fuelled by at least $400 million per year over 10 years, and with clear standards and timelines for achieving the CRTC’s speed targets, we’ve laid out exactly how to get there.

The truth is, ensuring broadband access across the country isn’t simply a rural issue. It impacts the well-being of our country. After all, rural communities drive nearly one-third of Canada’s economy. Our industries, from manufacturing to agriculture, are the foundations of this country’s success.

If Canada is going to reach its full economic potential, each and every community needs the opportunity to thrive.

I was pleased to hear the new minister of rural economic development, Bernadette Jordan, identify broadband as a top priority — and name FCM and local leaders as key partners in getting it done. This shows our advocacy is working, and our voices are being heard in Ottawa.

As budget 2019 approaches, we will continue urging the minister to work with municipal leaders to make a national broadband strategy a reality.

In a country as vast and diverse as ours, broadband internet allows Canadians to connect to one another. This is a critical time to bring rural communities into the digital age. And it’s time to ensure that every Canadian has access to fast and reliable internet, no matter where they live.

Ray Orb is rural forum chair of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities.

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