Last week Rural Economic Development Minister Maryam Monsef announced that the federal government would accelerate its rural broadband funding in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A day later, Navdeep Bains, Minister for Innovation, Science, and Industry repeated this pledge at a parliamentary committee meeting and added that Minister Monsef would be bringing solutions forward soon.
While details of the government’s plan are unclear, Minster Monsef has said that the government is open to increasing the overall amount of funding for connecting underserved areas beyond the $1.7B in their Universal Broadband Fund (set to launch later this year) and $500M Connect to Innovate program.
Minister Monsef told The Wire Report that “all options are on the table right now.”
This is a welcome development for internet users across the country. Unfortunately, access to high-quality internet access remains unaffordable or out of reach for too many Canadians, a gap that is even more noticeable as the country shifts to working, learning and socializing online.
According to data from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), one-in-ten Canadian households have no residential internet connection, and only 40.9% of rural households have access to the Commission’s “basic” internet speeds of 50 Mbps download, and 10 Mbps upload.
Here at CIRA, we’ve been tracking Canada’s urban/rural digital divide using our Internet Performance Test, which allows Canadians to test the quality of their internet connections – including metrics for speed, latency, jitter, and packet loss. This is fundamentally different than most internet speed tests, which are optimized to measure last-mile performance, as opposed to real-world conditions on the internet.
Since August, we have been actively collaborating with Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) on our Internet Performance Test to help the government decide on the best use of funds to help connect rural Canadians. You can see the test linked on ISED’s Universal Broadband Fund landing page here.
Since its launch in May of 2015, Canadians have performed over 640,000 performance tests on the platform. So far, the testing data shows that, for people living in rural Canada, we have a long way to go before rural users can enjoy the same speed that their urban counterparts do.
As the federal government contemplates their options for speeding up the distribution of broadband funding, we thought we’d take a minute to lay out how CIRA’s Internet Performance Test can provide policymakers, internet service providers, users, and all levels of government with critical information on how to evaluate projects and where to spend money.
1) Our Internet Performance Test shows where faster internet is needed
CIRA’s Internet Performance Test lives at https://performance.cira.ca/. A screenshot of the map of Canada with IPT results overlaid should appear below.
Red and pink variations denote slow connections, white shows mid-level performance (approximately a 25Mbps), and dark blue is the best (speeds approaching the CRTC’s 50 Mbps download target).
It’s easy for anyone to see where improved internet is and is not needed.
For decisionmakers trying to figure out where to invest scarce financial resources, it is easy to zoom in on the IPT maps to view local details.
Take, for example, the following central Alberta focus below. The cluster of blue test results in the top left quadrant of the screen shows Red Deer, where more robust infrastructure and faster options for broadband access exist.
As we move away from Red Deer towards the smaller, rural communities in the middle of the map, we begin to see those colours shift from blue to red as connections slow down.
When paired with other connectivity data, such as an ISPs' own Ookla reports or the CRTC and ISED's National Broadband Data project, CIRA's real-world internet performance insights can help provide a richer, more accurate picture of connectivity in Canada.
Any universal broadband advocate looking at this map should quickly understand that the ultimate objective is to turn the entire country blue. All Canadians will be able to watch this happen using IPT.
2) IPT ensures that funded projects deliver on their promise
You hear it all the time: internet users anecdotally report they do not receive the speed or quality of service advertised by their internet service provider.
We all know the symptoms: Zoom calls won’t work, videos refuse to load, large files take what feels like forever to download, students are unable to participate in online courses – the list goes on and on.
Thankfully, our IPT can help decisionmakers and funders ensure they are getting the maximum return on their investment by testing and evaluating internet access projects that receive funding.
The same mapping process can be used to demonstrate that projects being built are providing the promised speeds and service levels. For a new project in any given area, the colours on the map will gradually shift from red to blue as new infrastructure upgrades complete and begin to deliver faster speeds.
Ideally, this wouldn’t only happen when a project is completed. Our hope is that internet service providers who receive outside funding for their projects would be required to use CIRA’s Internet Performance Test to report to the Government of Canada (or other levels of government) on a regular basis. This would factually demonstrate that their project continues to meet the CRTC’s Universal Service Objectives and Quality of Service requirements well into the future.
There’s good reason to test and evaluate projects that receive public or other funding. Right now a lot of analysis of internet performance relies on self-reported data from internet service providers. To help the country’s ISPs accurate portray their service capabilities, our IPT can help users, policymakers, and regulators spot check self-reported data to ensure that end-users receive the speeds they were promised.
3) IPT can help decisionmakers coordinate investments between different funding programs
Canada has a patchwork of funding programs at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels to help stimulate investment in internet infrastructure. For example, the federal government has its Universal Broadband Fund and Connect to Innovate Fund, and the CRTC has its own Broadband Fund.
How do we make sure that these different programs aren’t duplicating efforts or missing key communities?
Enter: IPT. The platform could easily be used to assist the Government of Canada, the CRTC, and provincial and municipal governments in managing funding programs – ensuring there is no duplication. Our Internet Performance Test can highlight projects that overbuild in areas where internet performance is already sufficient, so communities who most urgency need upgrades get them sooner.
We believe that IPT data can help ensure the best use of public or other funds towards the CRTC’s Universal Service Objectives and Quality of Service Requirements (QoS). In this way, CIRA can help support funding programs, and the eventual project executions, to ensure that taxpayer dollars are well spent.
By leveraging IPT data, we can ensure that the projects we fund do not overbuild existing networks that could be upgraded much less expensively than building a new, competing network.
We are here to help
CIRA is one of many organizations that help the Canadian and global internet function daily. While our core mandate is the safe, stable, and secure operation of the .CA domain and its underlying technologies, we also work hard to connect, protect, and engage the internet community in Canada and beyond through projects like IPT.
We’re always happy to share our technical understanding of internet architecture, as well as years of experience in global and domestic internet policy discussions with any policymaker, regulator, ISP, or level of government trying to improve internet connectivity in their area.
CIRA’s vision is a trusted internet for Canadians that empowers individuals and organizations to achieve their economic, social and cultural potential. Our hope is that that our IPT can help decisionmakers make data-driven decisions based on real-world testing data to ensure that rural Canadians enjoy the same quality of connectivity and speed as their urban counterparts.
If you or someone in your organization would like to meet with CIRA to discuss how IPT works, or how it can help evaluate funded projects and reduce the analysis of where to spend money, reach out to me at [email protected]