By Jeremy Appel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
(ANNews) – Less than half of First Nations reserves have access to high-speed internet and cellular connectivity, according to a March 27 report tabled by Canadian auditor general Karen Hogan.
“These findings emphasize the persistent digital divide for people living on First Nations reserves and in rural and remote communities, compared to people who live in urban areas,” Hogan said in a news release.
“The government needs to take action so that there is affordable, high-speed connectivity coverage for Canadians in all areas of the country.”
According to the report, there’s a growing divide between urban, rural and First Nations communities, despite the federal government’s 2019 connectivity strategy.
The government defines high-speed internet as 50 megabits per second for downloads and 10 megabits per second for uploads. Its long-term goal is to have 90 per cent of households connected by 2021, 98 per cent by 2026 and 100 per cent by 2030.
The report notes that the government hasn’t accounted for whether this speed will be a sufficient minimum by the time its goal of full high-speed connectivity is reached.
Overall, access to high-speed internet has improved across the country, reaching 90.9 per cent nation-wide by 2021, a 4.7 percentage point increase from the previous year, yet connectivity remains at 42.9 per cent on reserves and 59.5 per cent in rural and remote communities. Urban connectivity, by contrast, is 99.3 per cent nationally.
In Alberta, 98.65 per cent of urban households have high-speed connectivity, compared to 40.74 per cent of rural and 26.91 per cent of First Nations.
P.E.I. and New Brunswick are the only provinces where First Nations connectivity exceeds rural and remote. In Yukon, no First Nations reserves have high-speed internet access.
While the government has dedicated $8 billion to expanding internet and cellular access across the country, it’s unclear how much more funds will be required to reach its 2030 goal, the report notes.
Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, the ministry responsible for the connectivity plan, tracks limited measures of connection quality and affordability across the country. For instance, it doesn’t track how many people with access to the internet have actually purchased internet services, nor does the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
While a community might technically have high-speed internet, it’s of little assistance if the connection is of poor quality or prohibitively expensive, the audit notes.
This is particularly concerning as increasing numbers of people work remotely, participate in the digital economy, and access education, medical care, and government services online.
Cellular connection, defined by access to the 4G network, is more equitable, with 99.2 per cent of Canada covered, 100 per cent of urban areas, 96.3 per cent of rural and remote areas, and 87.6 per cent of reserves.
In Alberta, those figures are 98.69 per cent for rural and remote areas and 91.51 per cent of reserves.
While no First Nations communities in Yukon have high-speed internet connectivity, they have 100 per cent cellular coverage.
The report found, however, that the government has no strategy for reaching full cellular connectivity.
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