The Digital Divide Has Become a Chasm: Here’s How We Bridge the Gap

Canada will not realize its full potential until rural communities are fully included in identifying and responding to our most pressing social and economic challenges, including digital policy.

July 26, 2021
Illustration by Rupert Gruber

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that Canada’s digital divides are multiple, deeply entrenched, and a significant threat to our individual and collective well-being. Arguably, these divides have grown into chasms.

Considering that policy statements about the urgent need for broadband began appearing in Canada as early as the late 1980s, the lack of universally accessible, affordable, reliable, scalable broadband infrastructure in this country represents generational policy failure. Delivering on repeated promises to connect everyone in Canada to critical infrastructure and to build communities’ capacity to realize the social and economic benefits of connectivity is a matter of equity.

We know the pandemic has had highly uneven consequences for Black Canadians, Indigenous people and people of colour, as well as for unhoused people, precariously employed, rural and otherwise marginalized people. And the costs of being on the wrong side of the digital divide are disproportionately borne by these same communities. In terms of both the capital required to access digital infrastructure, and the capacity required to realize the full benefits of connectivity, digital injustices are layered and complex, and reflect the systemic and structural barriers to full participation that have been baked into Canada’s disconnected digital policies. 

Since March 2020, when entire countries, including Canada, pivoted to remote and online work, learning and socializing, digital infrastructure and capacity have become more critical than ever. Despite decades of warnings by communities and researchers alike (including ourselves), we were woefully unprepared for this moment. Similar to the old adage that “the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago,” the best time to invest in digital infrastructure and capacity was a decade ago, or two. Unfortunately, most orders of government in Canada have been stuck on continuous repeat, while hoping for different results. It’s not working.

Indeed, while well-intentioned, most current broadband investment programs essentially throw good money into the same failed policies. It may surprise some to learn that Canada was once a leader in rural broadband extension and adoption. However, recent reports have highlighted that we are one of the most expensive countries when it comes to cellular data packages, and that more than half of Canada’s rural households still do not have access up to the speed of the CRTC’s own lacklustre targets — at least 50 Megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 10 Mbps for uploads — for minimum internet services.

Indeed, while the Government of Canada announced $1.75 billion in funding through the Universal Broadband Fund (UBF) mid-pandemic to address this problem, and has spent billions of dollars across about a dozen broadband programs since the early 1990s (the most recent iterations being the UBF, the Connect to Innovate program and, previously, the Connecting Canadians program), the Auditor General of Canada in 2016 pegged the actual cost of connecting all Canadians to fibre-optic broadband at somewhere between $40 and $50 billion. The gap between policy makers’ grasp of this problem and the implications of our digital infrastructure deficit is as deep as the rural/urban digital divide itself. 

Since the deregulation of the telecommunications industry in Canada in the 1990s, the CRTC has lacked the wherewithal to enact meaningful legislation or enforce consequences for failed project delivery.

How did we get here? Canada’s rural/urban divide is largely a result of three factors that, combined, undermine progress toward ensuring underserved communities get connected.

A lack of meaningful, contemporary regulatory frameworks and an abdication of public stewardship.

In this regard, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is a regulator in name only. Since the deregulation of the telecommunications industry in Canada in the 1990s, the CRTC has lacked the wherewithal to enact meaningful legislation or enforce consequences for failed project delivery — and has recently demonstrated a lack of leadership in exercising whatever aspects of its mandate that remain. These inadequacies are compounded by jurisdictional confusion between and within municipal, provincial and federal governments. The result is not only inefficient broadband policy and governance, but ineffective policy frameworks and investment.

A reliance on a misguided “field of dreams” approach to investing in infrastructure that has resulted in unevenly distributed, patchy networks.

When building digital infrastructure is treated as one-off project work and addressed through private sector stimulus investment to serve single municipalities, hospitals, schools or networks, the result is a programmatic cycle that does not address or solve systemic and structural challenges to connecting all Canadians to critical internet services. This approach fails to confront the reality that if the private sector were able or willing to solve the broadband infrastructure deficit without significant oversight and accountability to public stewardship, it would have already done so by now. We have 30-plus years of evidence that it will not.

Capacity deficits that create a vicious cycle that leads to lack of investment in digital infrastructure.

Communities without the technical, financial and social capital required to assess, procure and manage key digital infrastructure are also those most likely to be limited by a lack of education, skills or political de-prioritization of broadband infrastructure and digital capacity. The less capacity individuals and communities have to address current challenges, the less capacity they will have to seize future opportunities, creating an ever-widening capacity gap that mirrors and magnifies the divide in connectivity.

Communities that have managed to create local solutions to their broadband challenges are outliers that have succeeded not because of current policies and programming, but despite them. Consider successful community networks in Hamiota, Manitoba, or Olds, Alberta, or regional collaborative efforts such as the Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT) Network or the Eastern Ontario Regional Network (EORN). Indigenous communities have been leading the way on community-led broadband through initiatives such as K-Net and First Mile, and networks such as Clear Sky Connections. These initiatives can be viewed not only as progressive and innovative solutions to pressing rural infrastructure needs, but also as examples of communities that persevered in working over and around existing legislation and funding paradigms. They have been successful, but largely under their own steam. The point is that they shouldn’t have had to go it alone.

Increasing the pace for connecting Canadians will require a radically different approach. We propose three prongs for reinventing Canadian digital policy.

One: Return to the first principles of public policy design.

Good digital policy, as regards either broadband infrastructure or digital capacity building, should follow the same principles as those applied to crafting any good public policy. Technological issues tend to intimidate both policy leaders and casual observers, because the terminology can be opaque and exclusionary.

However, when we pause and consider the issues, the core elements of policy development apply: first, what problem are we trying to solve? Second, what evidence do we have about what has and has not worked previously? And third, how will we know if anyone is any better off after we’re done?

Good public policy serves justice, encourages active community engagement, and solves public issues through the effective and efficient investment of public resources. If we turn this lens to infrastructure, we might ask if we would, say, build multiple parallel roads right next to each other and only allow red cars on one road, blue cars on another, and green cars on a third, with splintered gravel roads or trails serving as the only option for many people to use. The answer, of course, is no.

So, why would we continue to entertain reactive, scattered, unambitious policies and programs on the broadband and digital policy files? Why is our only telecommunications regulator refusing to meaningfully regulate the industry? It’s time for bold, visionary action that leverages our best evidence — and we already know what works: place-based, collaborative, effectively governed and holistically integrated approaches that serve the needs of people, not corporations. If access to the internet is fundamental to accessing basic human rights, we cannot treat digital policy as a luxury. Nor can we accept lesser rights for people who don’t happen to be wealthy urbanites.

Two: End facilities-based competition by nationalizing broadband infrastructure and moving market competition to service delivery over that infrastructure.

If Canada is serious about changing the landscape in broadband infrastructure and digital policy, the first step is not to pour more money into the current broken system. Instead, structural separation should be our immediate intervention. Broadband infrastructure assets should be nationalized and governed as a public good. We already have a home-grown model of one type of this approach in the crown corporation SaskTel, which could be expanded or extrapolated nationally.

Internet service providers (ISPs) should compete not on the basis of who had the capital and interest to build in a given location, but rather on the basis of what it takes to deliver the best possible service across open-access infrastructure. This might seem radical. But it’s an approach already being pursued at the local and regional level by many of the community networks we discussed previously.

Doing so would alleviate the issues that arise when ISPs are beholden not to public interest, but to profit for shareholders. Doing so would also require acknowledging and supporting the $40–50 billion investment the auditor general has noted is required to build the physical infrastructure, as well as companion investments of the same magnitude in ensuring that civil service and political leaders have the capacity to lead and manage broadband as a key infrastructure asset. These changes would represent a major, positive shake-up of Canada’s telecommunications landscape. But reconfiguring the way digital infrastructure and programs are governed is critical to ensuring that public investments are accountable to public interests.

Three: Invest in both capital assets and digital capitals.

Getting rural Canada connected is only the first step in closing the digital divide. Over three decades of rural broadband policy failure, rural Canada has been preoccupied with building physical infrastructure, often at the expense of digital capacity. Unfortunately, this myopic focus on physical infrastructure has neglected building a culture of use for advanced digital technology skills and adoption in rural areas. Programs that support digital capacity development are the exception rather than the norm. Government and policy makers across all jurisdictions must pair investments in digital skills and technology adoption with connectivity funding. 

Canada will not realize its full potential until rural communities are fully included in the process of identifying and responding to our most pressing social and economic challenges, including digital policy. Getting digital policy right — from broadband infrastructure to supporting digital capacity building — is crucial both for ensuring Canadians can navigate the immediate crises posed by the pandemic and for supporting any effort to promote sustainable recovery and resilience in the long term.

The past 18 months of remote work and remote learning have shown there will be serious consequences to provincial and national recovery and resilience initiatives if rural Canadians are left disconnected in the digital world. Ensuring everyone has access to high-quality, affordable, high-speed broadband internet is a matter of equity. It’s time to get this done.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Authors

S. Ashleigh Weeden, M.P.A., is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development at the University of Guelph, where her work focuses on the way place, power and policy shape rural realities and futures.

Wayne Kelly, Ph.D., researches digital technology in rural communities and is the project coordinator for the Rural Policy Learning Commons at the Rural Development Institute at Brandon University in Manitoba.