/MPs push feds to act on affordable, accessible internet

MPs push feds to act on affordable, accessible internet

MPs of all stripes are awaiting details from the federal government on plans to help Canadians access affordable internet during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

NDP MP Brain Masse said the Liberals have been quiet on the issue despite the fact that so many government and education services have moved online.

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“Internet service and support as an essential service has changed from before and it’s now become the primary way to stay communicated, educated, and do businesses in Canada,” he said in an interview with iPolitics on Friday.

Masse said his constituents are concerned about cost, primarily from data and service fees, as consumption has increased while residents are stuck in their homes. He also said businesses concerned about their revenue streams are moving more services online.

Masse did acknowledge that some telecom companies, like Rogers and Telus, have come forward with consumer support amid the pandemic. For example, Rogers announced through its ForwardTogether program measures to support consumers like waiving long-distance voice calling fees and removing data usage caps for Rogers and Fido customers on limited home internet plans. Meanwhile, Telus is offering flexible payment options for consumer and small business customers who have been financially affected by the crisis. 

While the support is welcomed, Masse said it’s not a complete solution because there’s so many regional problems and gaps to the system. 

“You’re either in this with a national strategy or not,” he said. “You can’t be part way and that’s the problem with the government.”

In discussions with his NDP colleagues in rural regions, like MPs Charlie Angus and Carol Hugues, Masse said he’s been told students in these ridings at times can’t even afford to do their work because Bell hubs are so costly. 

Members of the House Industry committee had the chance to press innovation Minister Navdeep Bains for details regarding federal plans Thursday. Bloc Québécois MP and committee vice-chair Sébastien Lemire noted he had to purchase a satellite phone to remain in contact with his constituents, while Conservative MP Jeremy Patzer pointed out that the government pledged to connect all Canadians by 2030 even though the CRTC mandate is by 2025. 

Bains suggested that the government has a plan to help rural and remote communities access high-speed internet services, with Rural Economic Development Minister Maryam Monsef managing that initiative. 

Marie-Pier Baril, press secretary for Minister Monsef, said the federal government has made up to $6 billion available to support the building of rural and remote internet infrastructure, which includes the upcoming $1 billion universal broadband fund, which will support whatever network infrastructure is needed to best meet rural and remote connectivity needs. She did not clarify whether the Minister Monsef has any new announcements planned. 

“We know this is a very challenging time for all Canadians, especially those without reliable high-speed Internet as they try to work and communicate,” she said in an emailed statement to iPolitics. 

Baril also said the government is consulting with telecommunications service providers, rural municipalities and other stakeholders to determine the best options to accelerate improvements in access to high-speed Internet for rural and remote communities. She said all options are currently on the table.

“While timelines are being worked out, we recognize the urgency, and we recognize that this is also a big part of supporting our economy post-pandemic,” she said. “The Government of Canada will continue to monitor and respond to the wide-ranging impacts of COVID-19, and take additional actions as needed.”

Masse said the government could move up its 2030 timelines by changing its approach on the 5G spectrum auctions. Rather than a “cash cow” — focusing on how much money the government can get for the bid — he said the government should award the bid to a telecom company that has the primary objective of keeping costs low for consumers and create universal support from coast to coast. 

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“A good part of the fault for high pricing and lack of consumer connection has been the way we’ve auctioned off the spectrum to begin with,” he said. “Where’s the 20 billion gone? It certainly hasn’t gone to Canadians.” 

The current system, he said, has resulted in a patchwork of federal programs with no control of costs for consumers who are getting “fleeced” on data costs, spotty coverage across certain areas, and high costs compared to other countries. 

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