CRTC providing $72-million to improve internet in 51 northern communities

Canada’s telecom regulator will provide $72-million to help bring faster internet to more than 10,000 households in northern Manitoba, Yukon and the Northwest Territories.

Broadband Communications North Inc., a not-for-profit Indigenous network in Manitoba, will receive about $10-million for a satellite internet project. The remainder will go to BCE Inc.’s Northwestel Inc. to provide faster internet via satellites and fiber-optic cables to residents of Yukon and the Northwest Territories. The projects are expected to benefit residents in 51 predominantly Indigenous communities.

Wednesday’s announcement marks the first payout from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) Broadband Fund, which will provide a total of $750-million over five years to improve internet access in underserved regions. The money, which the regulator collects annually through fees the telecom industry pays, is meant to complement other sources of funding, such as private capital and government investments.

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The announcement comes amid growing pressure to bring faster, more reliable broadband to rural Canadians since the COVID-19 pandemic shifted work, school and commerce online. That’s created challenges for those who don’t have access to affordable, high-speed internet.

CRTC chairman Ian Scott said that for this first financing round, the commission considered only projects in the territories or in regions that depend on satellite for their internet service. The aim, Mr. Scott said, is to direct funding where it’s most needed.

Construction is expected to begin in spring, 2021, after the companies and the regulator have hammered out details such as schedules and costs. The projects are expected to take about three years, Mr. Scott said.

“The north is particularly challenging,” he said. Construction supplies are delivered to Canada’s north only a few times a year, and the building season is short. “You can’t do anything in the dark, on frozen ground,” he said.

The CRTC’s goal is for all Canadians to have access to download speeds of 50 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of 10 Mbps. Last year, only 42.6 per cent of rural households had access to such speeds and unlimited data, according to the regulator.

The satellite project in northern Manitoba will provide users with only 10 Mbps downloads and one Mbps uploads, although faster speeds could come later, Mr. Scott said.

“The commission’s aspirational target … just was a bridge too far for some communities,” Mr. Scott said, adding that the service is still “infinitely better” than the three Mbps download speeds currently available.

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The commission is also reviewing the nearly 600 applications it received in its second call out, which will consider projects in any part of the country.

Mr. Scott said he isn’t sure how much time it will take to determine which proposals to fund. “It’s a very long and rigorous process,” he said, noting that more than $1.5-billion in total funding has been requested.

The CRTC is also co-ordinating with the federal government, which has its own broadband fund, to prevent overlap between the projects being funded, Mr. Scott said.

Ottawa has not yet opened its Universal Broadband Fund, which is expected to allocate up to $1-billion over 10 years, to applications. Rural Economic Development Minister Maryam Monsef said in early June that calls for applications would go out “in the coming days.”

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