Rural Canada's voice in cabinet says feds looking at funding community ISPs

Rural Economic Development Minister Bernadette Jordan is expected to unveil the strategy next month.

OTTAWA — A new plan to help rural Canada thrive will focus on expanding internet and cellphone coverage, even funding communities that want to be their own service providers, the minister in charge of it says.

Rural Economic Development Minister Bernadette Jordan is expected to unveil the strategy next month.

In an interview this week, Jordan said the top complaint she hears on cross-country travels is the lack of high-speed internet in rural areas, which hurts businesses and efforts to woo and keep residents.

The House of Commons emphasized that concern on Thursday, when its members unanimously backed a motion from a Liberal MP calling for expanded digital infrastructure in rural areas for economic and public-safety reasons. The motion highlighted struggles local officials faced in responding to flooding in place with poor cellphone coverage.

The Liberals are promising to connect every household in the country to high-speed internet by 2030, through a $6-billion spending plan. Jordan said the government wants to entice big telecommunications companies to invest in rural areas, where populations are smaller and more spread-out than in urban centres.

But she said officials are also working out how some of the money could go directly to communities that decide to start their own internet service providers (ISPs) instead of waiting for big companies to show up.

“There are a number of communities that have stepped up to form their own ISPs because they don’t want to wait for the telcos, they don’t want to wait for the bigger companies to provide the service,” Jordan said. “It’s something that we’re looking at right now.”

The decision to create a minister of rural economic development in last January’s cabinet shuffle was in response to rural representatives in the Liberal caucus who wanted a dedicated voice at the cabinet table, Jordan said, rather than having elements of their concerns addressed by different ministers for subjects such as fisheries, agriculture and tourism.

The 2016 census showed that 82 per cent of the Canadian population lives in large and medium-sized cities, one of the highest urban concentrations among G7 nations. Rural areas close to city centres saw better growth than those farther away, while some watched their populations drop. Those include several small towns in Jordan’s home province of Nova Scotia, like New Glasgow, Cumberland and Digby.

The rural population is also aging at a faster rate than that in urban centres, which tend to attract younger families.

Jordan’s riding of South Shore-St. Margaret’s is so rural she jokingly calls it “sub-rural.” She talked about how she sometimes can’t connect online at night when she’s at home because the lines are overloaded, a problem that hurts businesses looking for new markets and farmers who increasingly rely on digital infrastructure.

She said one family told her how a university-student daughter didn’t want to return on weekends because of the spotty cellphone and internet service.

“We see a lot of young people leaving rural communities. As a mother, I wanted my kids to go out and experience life in other places, but I also know that if they want to come back, they should be able to,” Jordan said.

“If people want to stay, they should be able to. If people want to move to rural communities, they should have access to the same services as people in the city.”

Jordan said government spending is not the only way to help rural Canada, noting regulatory barriers and concerns about how communities must apply for infrastructure money — which puts administrative burdens on small municipal governments.

“Those are some of the challenges that we’re hearing about that we’re hoping to address,” Jordan said.

“When you’ve got a municipality with 700 people in it, sometimes the application process itself can be daunting. We’re hearing that. We know that. How can we address that, how can we make it easier for them? Those are some of the things we’re looking at.”

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press