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Building back better, during and after COVID-19, with faster broadband

Building back better, during and after COVID-19, with faster broadband

The government of Canada has announced the details of its $1.7 billion Universal Broadband Fund, pledging to connect 98 per cent of Canadians to high-speed internet by 2026.

The news follows Ontario’s, which recently announced $1 billion over six years to support the expansion and improvement of broadband and cellular internet access.

The emphasis is on meeting the economic and social needs that higher-speed, reliable and affordable internet access offers residential and business users during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

In Ontario, the investment includes the 2019 $315-million initiative called Up to Speed: Ontario’s Broadband and Cellular Action Plan, which has funds earmarked to pre-existing regional broadband networks in southwestern, eastern and northern Ontario. It also comprises the Improving Connectivity in Ontario (ICON) program that doubled the $150 million initially pledged in June 2020 to $300 million.

Broadband and cellular internet access programs like ICON expect to leverage $900 million from co-funding applicants that typically include telecommunication service providers, municipal governments, First Nation communities and other for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. These groups have the expertise needed to design, implement and respond to the need for improved connectivity in their communities.

The persistence of the digital divide in Canada is a perennial and growing policy, economic and social problem. The pandemic literally brought home our dependence on modern telecommunications.

COVID-19 has induced further digital transformation as businesses moved online to serve customers; schools created virtual classrooms and technology use for students’ success and experts like doctors and judges switched to online consultations and cloud-based information systems.

In 2018, as researchers at the University of Guelph’s Regional and Rural Broadband (R2B2) project, we tracked southwestern Ontario’s “telecommuter surplus” and identified an average of $12,000 in savings per employee working from home three days a week.

We estimate that at least half of residential internet users across southern Ontario are currently working remotely full-time during the COVID-19 pandemic. New data from Durham Region indicates that for three days a week, the remote worker saves nearly $19,000, with an estimated annual environmental benefit of 3,205 kilograms of carbon dioxide offset by not commuting an average of 96 kilometres per day.

There is little doubt that Ontarians all over the province need improved connectivity. R2B2 researchers recently examined more than 18 million internet connection tests conducted by Ontarians in 2019 and found average effective download speeds below five Mbps for 127 out of 740 grouped communities in Ontario. This means that 17 per cent of Ontario communities were found to have extremely poor quality internet access.

Being on the wrong side of the digital divide means regularly experiencing strained bandwidth where Zoom meetings drop their connections or you need to stop your video.

Cloud-based files cannot be uploaded or downloaded quickly, or not for real time tele-meetings. R2B2 research in Durham Region also recently found that 63 per cent of wireless and mobile users were exceeding their data allowance at maximum monthly cost as high as $2,000.

Many Canadians need faster, affordable and more reliable broadband to work and study from home, as well as to bounce back from the loss of employment or to launch home-based businesses due to COVID-19. Rural areas are hard hit even in relatively more densely populated communities of southern Ontario, for example, in Halton Region, Durham Region and the City of Hamilton, where R2B2 supported data collection, analysis and mapping.

Farmers, cottagers and business groups

Various stakeholder associations representing farmers, cottagers, municipalities, business and trade groups advocate for improved connectivity in Ontario. Their voices likely helped to increase the amount and release of investment made by the recently announced provincial and federal programs.

Communities across the nation are already organizing themselves to secure better broadband and cellular connectivity. The federal government invites communities interested in better broadband and cellular connectivity to use their new call-in telephone number, 1-800-328-6189, that provides information and support.

We cannot emphasize enough how essential it is to support internet access funding as a form of economic stimulus so that all Canadians can make their way through COVID-19, and our economy and society can recover from it as soon as possible.

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