Second reading of Bill S-242, An Act to amend the Radiocommunication Act

By: The Hon. Marty Klyne

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Hon. Marty Klyne: Honourable senators, it’s an honour to speak in support of Bill S-242, which has been put forward by Senator Patterson. This is an important piece of legislation, and I trust that this bill will receive the support it needs to become law both in this chamber and in the other place.

I note with interest the fact that for the past 20 years senators and members of Parliament from all parties, groups and caucuses have stood in Parliament and made clear the need for improved broadband internet service in rural and remote areas, and also in areas that are heavily populated by Indigenous peoples. Every Canadian should have an equal opportunity to benefit from the internet and its services, whether it’s telemedicine or virtual health care, receiving social services, pursuing education or professional development or even replacing old legacy business systems with new applications.

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Internet access allows for expanded participation in new market economies, driving economic transformation for Indigenous nations and other rural and remote communities. It’s an issue that supersedes region, province, partisan affiliation and even the different levels of government. The calls have been strikingly similar, even though the politicians making the calls have otherwise had little in common. Frankly, it’s a message that hasn’t really changed over the ensuing decades. The need for improved broadband services in rural and remote areas remains high, and, in fact, it’s a need that has only grown more and more acute with time.

I won’t repeat the text of Senator Patterson’s bill, but in simple terms this bill, if passed, would require entities that hold an internet spectrum licence, which is a licence to provide internet service within a prescribed geographic area, to offer internet services to at least 50% of the population in the underserved region that the licence covers, and do so within three years of the licence being issued. If the entity does not provide service to at least 50% of the population covered by the licence, then the licence would be reclaimed by the government and put back up for auction.

Under existing legislation, companies that hold internet spectrum licences are not legally required to use it, and many companies instead choose to simply hold on to their spectrum without using it to offer internet services to Canadians — many of whom are in need of the service or upgraded services. In the end, many of those companies will resell their spectrum, making millions in profits while having done nothing to provide improved broadband options in rural and remote communities. It’s good for the business that sold the spectrum at a profit, but is a bad result for taxpayers and Canadians generally who tend to pay more for broadband and have fewer service providers to choose from relative to people living in other developed countries.

Bill S-242 would help put a stop to the practice of private companies sitting on spectrum licences. The “use it or lose it” approach is long overdue, and it just makes sense. The federal government auctions off spectrum to private companies for one primary purpose — to provide broadband internet service options to Canadians in underserved markets. Unfortunately, when companies instead choose to sit on their spectrum, it does a real disservice to those people who live in areas with a limited population, or in areas where poverty and other challenges make connecting to the internet more difficult than in urban centres.

Private companies hoarding spectrum without using it make those challenges more difficult to overcome, and an ever-widening economic and prosperity gap between urban and rural and remote communities continues to exist. It’s time to change this behaviour, and that’s why I support this legislation.

Of course, spectrum, and the way it is allocated, is but one part of the challenge. I do not believe that Bill S-242 will solve all our problems when it comes to providing enhanced broadband service in rural areas. However, it will require internet service providers to offer better and more reliable service in more regions of the country, and that would be a significant improvement over the status quo. In fact, this status quo is not merely inconvenient for rural Canadians, but is costing the country in unrealized productivity and increased economic potential.

This past April, I rose during Question Period and asked Senator Gold about the enormous gap that exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples when it came to having access to 50/10 download and upload speed internet service.

While I greatly appreciate the work and funds that the Government of Canada has committed to closing this gap, and to closing the gap in rural and remote areas more broadly, the fact remains that we aren’t getting the job done. Broadband service in the North is notoriously spotty, and it’s the same in many rural portions of Western Canada, especially in Indigenous communities.

As a senator for Saskatchewan, I’m all too aware of the challenges facing Indigenous residents of my province who live outside of the major centres, Regina and Saskatoon. The stories I hear aren’t just anecdotes. In its 2020 Communications Monitoring Report, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, or CRTC, released statistics on the percentage of households on First Nations reserves that have access to broadband internet at the CRTC’s standard of 50/10 megabits per second download and upload speed. In Saskatchewan, the number of households on-reserve with access to that speed is just 1.7%. In Manitoba, the number is 2%. We must do better.

Again, a lack of action on improving broadband services is costly. A 2021 article in the Edmonton Journal noted that during the COVID-19 pandemic, some households in the Northwest Territories were paying upwards of $2,000 a month in data overage charges. This at a time when being apart and working virtually was mandatory for many people. That’s not fair, nor is it sustainable. Poor infrastructure, limited competition and lax spectrum laws have all contributed to an unacceptable situation, especially for Indigenous peoples.

A key component of reconciliation is working together to ensure that First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples can share in the same economic opportunities that other Canadians currently enjoy. There is a growing digital gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. If Indigenous peoples do not have fair and equitable access to broadband internet the gap will only grow, and that will have devastating economic consequences for one of the fastest growing demographics in our country.

We’re at risk of preventing an entire generation of Indigenous youth from reaching the level of economic opportunity they could otherwise strive to, and that’s something we need to fix. I believe that Bill S-242 is a first and important step in that direction.

The reality is that there is nothing more I can say on this topic that hasn’t already been said a hundred times over by politicians at all levels of government and from across the political spectrum. In fact, it’s one of the few things that partisans from all sides can agree on: Canadians need better access to broadband internet. Reforming the method by which the Government of Canada auctions off its spectrum licences and protects the integrity of the same would be a win for everyone, not to mention the need for a more robust usage of the Broadband Fund and good governance of the same.

Honourable senators, I’m tempted to conclude this speech by stating that now is the time to improve broadband internet service in this country. That wouldn’t be the truth. The truth is that the time to have done this was probably 20 or more years ago. Compared with other developed countries we’re way behind, and if Bill S-242 helps us get one small step closer towards closing the gap, then we need to support this legislation.

The internet isn’t just a tool that can be used by a small business to sell their goods across the world, nor is it just a valuable resource for schoolchildren doing their homework. It’s the way we connect with each other. We need to make access to broadband internet service as wide-reaching and as equitable as possible. That’s why I am in favour of this legislation.

Honourable senators, I’m very pleased to lend my support to Bill S-242, and I hope that my colleagues from all groups will do the same. Thank you.

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