QP – Remote Access to Digital Connectivity

The Honourable Navdeep Singh Bains, P.C., M.P. – Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development

January 31, 2017

Remote Access to Digital Connectivity

Hon. Dennis Glen Patterson: Minister, I’m sure you’re well aware of how digital technologies and tools have vastly improved our quality of life in Canada, in every field of human endeavour. From medicine to education, digital technology is helping Canadians live better, more productive and healthier lives.

This is especially important in my region of Nunavut, which I think is arguably the most remote region of Canada. Despite the importance of Internet and digital technologies in a region that isn’t even connected by roads, we have, sadly, on average, the highest rates and the lowest service levels of any jurisdiction in Canada.

We were quite thrilled on December 22 when the CRTC responded to many appeals from the North and declared that broadband Internet is an essential service.

Here is the question and challenge I’d like to ask you about, minister: We are appreciative, of course, of the $500 million over 5 years that was announced for the Connecting Canadians program that is money meant for all of Canada. But this amount does fall short of addressing the infrastructure gap in Nunavut, which has been estimated to cost $1 billion to remedy.

Recognizing that government funding alone will not help to close that gap, is your government willing to enter into longer- term commitments of, say, 10 years or more, which I believe will encourage the private sector to invest in and further develop the much-needed communications infrastructure in the Far North?

Hon. Navdeep Singh Bains, P.C., M.P., Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development: I’d like to thank the honourable senator for that question. As the senator knows, I’ve spoken about this issue on numerous occasions, around two key areas of access and affordability when it comes to Internet connectivity.

Taking a step back and talking about, as you said, the new digital economy. I don’t say “the economy” anymore; I always say “the digital economy.” We’re in the fourth Industrial Revolution. Our supply chains, our businesses and way of life have become more digitized than ever before, and every company is a tech company. The importance and prevalence of technology, especially digital technology, the speed and scope, is phenomenal compared to what we’ve seen with some of the industrial revolutions of the past.

When it comes to Canada, one of the challenges we deal with on access is the digital divide between urban and rural and some of our remote communities. To that effect, in the last budget, as I talked about, we made some down payments when it comes to innovation. One was the cluster initiative that I talked about a few moments ago. The other was the Connect to Innovate $500 million allocation. The program is designed based on extensive consultations with stakeholders. We think we can leverage up to $1 billion, because it is a true partnership that we want to have with others as well. That is important to note.

As you also mentioned, CRTC made a ruling with regard to this, and they also put forward a proposal of $750 million that the telecommunication companies should assist with in terms of dealing with this issue of access in rural and remote communities.

We feel that initiative, coupled with our program, is definitely a very positive step. It does not deal with the entire gap. I’m currently working with my colleagues and others to determine how to deal with those additional challenges going forward. But we wanted to act immediately, hence why we put forward the Connect to Innovate program, to provide high-speed Internet connectivity in some of these rural and remote communities.

This is coupled with the CRTC and the work I’m doing with my provincial and territorial counterparts. I’ve set a table around innovation and economic development, and this is one area as well. When you look at the combined dollar value, it could be over $2 billion to deal with the issues of Internet connectivity in rural and remote communities. That is a significant step, but it doesn’t address all of the issues.