Ottawa’s slow rollout of internet to First Nations creating economic rift: audit

By Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — The federal government’s slow rollout of high-speed internet to rural areas is putting First Nations at an economic disadvantage while billions of dollars earmarked to fix the issue remains untouched, says Canada’s auditor general.

The lack of internet access continues to exclude First Nation reserves from accessing education, work and medical or government services online, Karen Hogan says in a report released Monday — despite there being billions of dollars in last year’s budget to address their needs.

“Internet and mobile services is not equal for all Canadians,” reads the audit report, which covered the period from July 2018 to January.

On First Nations, about 43 per cent of households have high-speed internet, while 91 per cent of households across Canada do. In rural and remote areas, about 60 per cent have access to high-speed internet.

The audit found that the federal government is failing to account for affordability, because it is only “focused on price, without considering income.”

“Price alone does not indicate whether a Canadian household can afford Internet or mobile cellular service” says Hogan’s report.

“Connectivity, if unaffordable or of poor quality, is no more of an improvement to the lives of Canadians living on First Nations reserves or in rural and remote areas than having no connectivity at all.”

But the government isn’t just behind on its target to improve internet access for First Nations and rural residents. It’s also behind on rolling out available money to fix the issue, the audit found.

The 2022-23 federal budget included $2.4 billion to help improve internet and cell service for Canadians, but the government has only spent 40 per cent of that money, or less than $1 billion.

Another $2 billion was earmarked to support large-scale connectivity infrastructure projects by providing loans or equity financing.

“Being connected is no longer a luxury but a basic essential service for Canadians. This fact became more apparent as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which transformed how many Canadians live, work, and learn,” Hogan’s report says.

“Without access to fast, reliable, and affordable high-speed internet and mobile cellular services, people residing in remote communities do not have the same opportunities as people residing in more urban areas.”

The federal government had committed to connecting 90 per cent of Canadians to high-speed Internet by 2021, 98 per cent of Canadians by 2026 and 100 per cent by 2030.

Their stated goal is to equip households with a minimum speed of 50 megabits per second for downloads and 10 megabits per second for uploads.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 27, 2023.

Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press

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