Digital divide: Libro weighs in on how Ottawa can boost rural internet access

Create a single funding stream for projects and focus on supporting local and regional Internet and telecommunication companies already building critical infrastructure.

Those are among London-based Libro Credit Union’s recommendations as the federal government consults Canadians on how to invest millions of dollars to eliminate the digital divide between rural and urban Canadians.

Lack of access to fast and affordable Internet service has long been seen as a threat to the economic future of rural communities, including those in Southwestern Ontario.

But it’s a problem underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced many businesses and individuals to shift more of their activities online, Libro said.

“Our current environment has shown the inequalities, inconsistencies and gaps between high-density population service and low-density population service,” Steve Bolton, Libro’s chief executive, said in a letter to the government.

It’s estimated two million Canadians, mostly in rural areas, lack access to reliable Internet service.

A recent study by the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), for instance, showed rural residents experience nearly 10 times slower download speeds than their urnan counterparts.

Part of the challenge is the lack of infrastructure in rural communities, where sparsely populated areas with long distances between users make for unattractive investments for service providers.

Libro also calls for alignment of federal and provincial programs aimed at improving Internet access and connectivity in rural areas and creation a single funding stream for these initiatives.

Strathroy-Caradoc Mayor Joanne Vanderheyden, who has long advocated for more government investment to address the digital divide, agreed co-operation between different levels of government and stakeholders is needed to speed these projects.

She noted several projects are underway as part of the Southwestern Ontario Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT) strategy, which awarded its first contracts in Norfolk, Lambton and Wellington counties this year, but more needs to be done to improve coverage.

“It always takes too long when you don’t have it . . . (but) this isn’t just, ‘Let’s just put a wire here and we’re done,’ ” she said. “It’s a huge undertaking and we need to work together to get this done.”

Vanderheyden, who called Internet access an essential service, agreed the virus crisis has underscored the urban-rural divide.

“There absolutely is a need that has been actually magnified to a high degree” by the pandemic, she said. “We are all working from home, students are working from home, and we really did see that the divide in access.”

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