YOU’D think that if the federal government handed out millions of dollars to companies in order to deliver on a public mandate that it would be a simple thing to find out what happened to that money and those services.
In 2015, TBaytel received nearly a million dollars from the government in order to bring high-speed broadband service to specific communities in Northwestern Ontario, and a further $2.9 million last year.
But ask those who live in these areas about their internet service and they will often tell you in a couple of words: “it sucks.”
Case in point is the situation in Oliver Paipoonge (full disclosure: I have a home in the area). The promise of high-speed internet has been slow in coming and adding to the frustration is that TBaytel has been less than transparent about its plans for the community.
What is equally offensive is that it is nearly impossible to find out how the millions that TBaytel has received have been spent. Direct requests for answers to the company have been rejected, requests to the government have been rebuffed and anyone seeking those details is urged to make a “freedom of information” request which has been done by a group of local citizens.
However, that too has turned out to be a dead end with those citizens being told they must spend hundreds of dollars to get answers but with no guarantee they will get the information they are seeking.
Imagine, taxpaying citizens have to go through the cumbersome process of filing a freedom of information request to get information on how their tax dollars are being spent. Elected officials at both the provincial and federal levels, from both the government and the opposition, are of little help.
This lack of transparency and accountability is just part of the problem.
The Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) has declared high-speed internet a basic service, as it did with the telephone decades ago. And there are many good reasons for this.
A little more than a year ago, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada issued a discussion paper entitled “Positioning Canada to Lead in a Digital and Data-Driven Economy.” It is a recognition that our economy and the ability to be part of it depend on access to data and the information and services it brings.
The paper goes on to say, “It recognizes that success requires the full participation of all parts of Canada's economy and diverse society as we act together to unlock the innovation potential of a digital and data marketplace by enhancing trust, technology adoption, creativity and inclusion.”
Citizens like those in Oliver Paipoonge risk ending up as second-class citizens in an economy where information and access are king. In practical terms, it makes it harder for these communities to attract and keep businesses, it limits access to education and health services and it affects the community’s ability to stay in touch with other Canadians.
High-speed internet services to under-populated, rural areas will never be made strictly on a “business case” calculation. Obviously, delivering services to more urban, densely populated communities is more profitable. A basic service is not and should not be dependent on whether a company can turn a buck. This problem requires a sincere effort and a serious, accountable investment.
It’s not as if the financial resources aren’t available. In the past decade, the federal government has raised more than $13 billion dollars selling access to the airways that allow for distribution of phone and internet services. The so-called “spectrum auctions” are used to generate revenue and control the airways. Sadly, many parts of this country do not fully benefit from the proceeds of these auctions.
People in rural parts of Canada, such as Oliver Paipoonge, deserve a better and more timely response. Governments who cut the cheques and companies such as TBaytel that accept public money must be more transparent about uses and plans for that money.
(Dan Oldfield is a former CBC reporter and lead negotiator for the Canadian Media Guild and currently a partner in Syzygy Learning and Facilitation. He has a home in the Thunder Bay area.)