Canada’s Universal Broadband Fund

Date: January 29, 2021

Author: Catherine Middleton

By Catherine Middleton, Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University

In November 2020, as part of Canada’s connectivity strategy, the Government of Canada launched the $1.75 billion Universal Broadband Fund (UBF). The fund is designed to support a wide variety of broadband infrastructure projects, including the extension of connectivity to rural and remote communities and provision of mobile service along unserved roads and highways serving Indigenous communities. There are separate funding envelopes for projects that can be completed by the end of 2021 (the Rapid Response stream, for which applications have now closed), larger impact projects, and mobile projects that primarily benefit Indigenous peoples. Funding is already flowing to Rapid Response projects, enabling applicants with a viable plan to begin their work to extend broadband connectivity immediately. Fast decision making has not been a hallmark of broadband funding programs in the past and the Universal Broadband Fund’s commitment to provide funding to “shovel-ready” applicants quickly will serve Canadians well.

Communities that have poor broadband or are completely unserved may have limited capacity to develop a viable business plan to bring broadband to their location, and may not be well-positioned todevelop partnerships with technology companies to build the broadband networks that meet their needs. Recognizing these challenges, and in keeping with the client-focused approach set out in the 2019 connectivity strategy, Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) is offering “pathfinder” services to assist potential UBF applicants to develop partnerships (including with the Canada Infrastructure Bank), identify funding sources beyond the UBF (which does not fund 100% of project budgets) and navigate the application process. Webinars, FAQs, newsletters and videos explain the process and provide advice on how to strengthen applications. Detailed templates clearly identify information needed to support funding requests and prevent submission of incomplete applications. ISED also maintains a website with links to other federal initiatives that support broadband rollouts.

More granular broadband mapping is now available, showing availability at the level of 250 metre-long road segments, replacing the hexagon mapping approach that previously rendered some premises ineligible for funding even though they did not have broadband service. ISED offers an easy to use eligibility mapping tool making it simpler for UBF applicants without mapping expertise to show where they intend to provide broadband service. The mapping platform is also used by the CRTC. Coordination between ISED and CRTC is intended to ensure that projects funded by the CRTC’s Broadband Fund and the UBF do not serve the same locations (i.e. no overbuilding).

As of 2019, CRTC data show that only about 35% of First Nations reserves and 45% of rural households had access to the CRTC’s target for high quality broadband (50 Mbps download, 10 Mbps upload with an option to purchase unlimited data). The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of affordable, high quality internet access as an enabler of socioeconomic inclusion, and it is essential that Canada’s Indigenous and non-urban populations have equitable access to the healthcare, education, and employment opportunities (including support for working from home) that broadband enables. Projects funded by the $150 million Rapid Response Stream are expected to be in service by the end of 2021, but it is unclear when funding decisions will be made for the rest of the fund. As the need for broadband is urgent Canadians will benefit if ISED expedites the review of all UBF applications, and prioritizes projects with anticipated completion dates well before the fund’s 2027 end date.

Despite the word “universal” in the fund’s name, as a competitive program it is not in fact universal. Communities have to compete with other for funding and it is highly likely that as with previous programs funded by the provinces, the CRTC and the federal government, there will be more viable projects proposed than can be funded within the current budget allocation. Further initiatives will be needed to ensure broadband access for all, and all possible opportunities to speed up the rollout should be considered. Programs like the UBF play an important role, but must be supplemented with further action to identify and fill in the remaining gaps in coverage. As reliance upon communities to develop feasible broadband plans (the UBF approach) will not address all connectivity issues Canada needs a truly universal initiative that is proactive in finding solutions for communities that do not have the capacity to propose their own projects and gets these communities online as quickly as possible.