Nirmala Naidoo to the Alberta Rural Connectivity Forum
November 6, 2023
Nirmala Naidoo, Commissioner for Alberta and the Northwest Territories
Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC)
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Thank you for inviting me to speak with you all again today.
Before I begin I would like to take a moment to acknowledge that we are on traditional Treaty 7 territory. Let us take a moment to acknowledge the varied peoples and First Nations of this land and pay respect to their Elders.
It’s wonderful to be back here in Banff and back here at the Alberta Rural Connectivity Forum once again. Though I have enjoyed seeing many familiar faces today, it has also been a real pleasure to see and meet so many new ones.
I’m looking forward to fielding your questions and updating you all on the exciting work we are doing at the CRTC.
But before I do, I want to thank the Alberta Rural Connectivity Coalition, not just for having me back, but for making a submission to our Broadband Fund policy review earlier this year.
I’ll provide more details in a few minutes, but submissions from groups like yours are an incredibly important piece of the puzzle. Your input is helping us figure out the changes we can make to better address our shared goal of connecting all Canadians to high-speed and reliable Internet access.
On that note, I’d like to start by providing a brief overview of the CRTC and the work we do.
I am Nirmala Naidoo, the Commissioner responsible for Alberta and the Northwest Territories at the CRTC.
Together with my fellow Commissioners, which include our Chairperson and two Vice-Chairs, we make decisions in the public interest to ensure Canadians have access to high-quality and reliable communications networks and services.
We are an arm’s length, administrative tribunal with quasi-judicial functions that reports to Parliament through the Minister of Canadian Heritage.
I should mention that the nature of our work limits our ability to discuss open files outside of formal proceedings. This will likely limit my ability to answer some of the questions you might have for me today. With that said, I’ll do my best and I may also refer you to my colleague, Devin Sheahan, who is here with me.
It is also worth noting that the CRTC’s activities are largely funded by the industries we regulate, rather than through general tax revenues.
I provide this context in order to clarify that while closing the digital divide is a priority for the federal government as a whole, I can only speak to the role that the CRTC is playing and the initiatives that are under our purview. I am not speaking on behalf of the federal government or the federal public service.
Telecom in Canada
With that out of the way, we should begin by acknowledging the rapid change telecommunications has undergone in a relatively short period of time.
In a few short decades, Canada has moved from a wired, voice-only system to one composed of incredibly fast mobile digital networks. The CRTC has introduced a series of measures to keep pace with these changes and to ensure that all Canadians have access to the advantages that they deliver.
In December 2016, the CRTC announced that high-speed Internet access and mobile wireless services are now part of our universal service objective and should be available to all Canadians wherever they live.
They can be in a municipality of 10 or 10,000, it doesn’t matter. Everyone should have access to high-speed Internet and mobile wireless services and be able to fully participate in the digital economy.
Rural and Indigenous Access
Access to our universal service objective, which includes speeds of 50/10, is going up. In fact, 91.4% of Canadians have access to service at those speeds.
On the face of it, that is a great number. But, as many of you already know, that number falls to 62% when we talk about Canadians living in rural areas. For Canadians living on reserve that number is even lower: just 43.3%.
Here in Alberta, things are even worse: just 40.7% of rural or Indigenous Albertans have access to speeds at our universal service objective.
That’s the so-called ‘digital divide’ that so many of us have been discussing today. It is the gap that affects far too many Canadians and that we all desperately want to close.
To do that, though, is going to take time and significant investment. Our colleagues at Innovation, Science and Economic Development estimated that at least $8 billion will be required to close the broadband gap in Canada.
It’s clear that funding from all levels of government, as well as private service providers, will be required to achieve this. Here in Alberta, the province’s own Broadband Strategy commits $390 million in provincial funding by the end of the 2026/27 fiscal year.
Although the CRTC’s main role is still administering legislation and regulation, we are playing a role in the federal government’s push to connect all Canadians to high-speed Internet services.
This began in 2019 when the CRTC established the Broadband Fund. The Fund was created so we can help improve broadband services across Canada and play a small role in closing that estimated $8 billion gap.
Our first call for applications focused on bringing Internet services to some of the most remote areas in Canada. Our second call focused on transport, access and mobile wireless projects across Canada, especially in building infrastructure where Canadians currently don’t have it. This includes projects to increase satellite transport capacity in satellite-dependent communities.
To date the Broadband Fund has committed more than $240 million dollars to improve broadband services to 205 rural and remote communities, including 89 Indigenous communities. More than $33 million of that has gone to Alberta communities, most of which are First Nations or Indigenous communities.
And this is just the start. In our third call for submissions, for which satellite-dependent communities were eligible, we received more than 100 applications asking for almost $1.9 billion in funding.
Broadband Fund review and Indigenous outreach
Perhaps most importantly for all of you here today, earlier this year we launched a review of the Broadband Fund. Principally, we are examining how we can improve the Fund’s focus and its processes to help close the connectivity gap as quickly as possible.
To do that, we know we need increase our participation and engagement with Indigenous communities. Throughout our Telecom in the Far North proceedings, we worked together with communities to identify barriers to participation in CRTC proceedings and potential solutions.
For example, we have held focus groups with residents of the Far North, to meet and talk to people where they live and work. We’ve held public hearings in places like Whitehorse, and enabled regional appearances at satellite locations. And we have unveiled more accessible online engagement opportunities, and began publishing key information in Indigenous languages commonly used in the Far North.
These are just a few of the ways we are increasing engagement with Indigenous communities, and we know we must continue to be more proactive if we are to actively engage these communities.
This feedback has helped to inform our review of the Broadband Fund. While I can’t get into specifics yet of how we are intending to change the Broadband Fund, I can detail some of the issues our review explored as a sign of what may be to come.
For example, a central part of our review focused on identifying and addressing the specific economic and social needs of Indigenous peoples and how the Broadband Fund can be used to advance the goals of Reconciliation.
We sought feedback from Indigenous communities on a proposal for a new, Indigenous-only funding stream within the program. And we looked at different ways we can improve engagement between applicants and Indigenous communities that may be affected by telecommunications infrastructure projects. We recognize that we need greater guidance from our Indigenous communities in how to best navigate these issues.
We also looked at ways to speed up the process and make the application process easier.
I’d like to close by stating the importance of working together. Collaboration—between communities, private partners, and all levels of government— is key to bridging the connectivity gap.
We are fortunate in that we share the same goal: that all Canadians have access to high-speed Internet and can participate fully in today’s digital world. It’s the how we get there that is the difficult part.
The best way, in my mind, is by working together. That is why it’s always a joy to attend and speak at conferences such as this one. It is through our work today and tomorrow that we can build relationships, share ideas and best practices, and co-develop solutions to bridge the digital divide.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you all today. I believe now we have time for a few questions.
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