Connectivity in Rural and Remote Areas

Opening Statement before the Standing Committee on Public Accounts

Connectivity in Rural and Remote Areas

(Report 2—2023 Reports of the Auditor General of Canada)

5 October 2023

Karen Hogan, Fellow Chartered Professional AccountantFCPA
Auditor General of Canada

Mr. Chair, thank you for this opportunity to discuss our report on connectivity in rural and remote areas, which was tabled in the House of Commons on March 27th, 2023. I would like to acknowledge that this hearing is taking place on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people. Joining me today is Sami Hannoush, the principal who was responsible for the audit.

In this audit, we looked at whether Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada and the Canadian Radio‑television and Telecommunications Commission had improved the accessibility, affordability, and quality of high‑speed Internet and mobile cellular connectivity for Canadians in rural and remote areas.

At a time when so much takes place online, it is critical for all Canadians to have access to reliable and affordable high-speed Internet and mobile cellular services. This is a matter of inclusion—when services are of poor quality or are unaffordable or unavailable, people are effectively excluded from participating fully and equally in many aspects of life today. This includes participating in the digital economy, accessing online education, banking, medical care, and government services, and working remotely.

We found that overall access to Internet and mobile cellular services had improved across the country since our last audit in 2018. However, the federal government’s strategy has yet to deliver results for many rural and remote communities and First Nations reserves. Internet connectivity coverage in rural and remote areas is approximately 60%, and just 43% on First Nations reserves.

We also found delays in approving projects that were meant to bring services to rural and remote areas. For example, final approvals under Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications CommissionCRTC’s Broadband Fund took an average of almost 2 years. Delays mean that 1.4 million households who are already underserved or not served at all are still waiting to be connected.

Access to services is not just about having the infrastructure in place to connect households, businesses, and institutions—it’s also about the affordability and reliability of these services. We found, however, that the 2 organizations tracked only some dimensions of the affordability and quality of services. For example, they considered pricing as part of affordability, but did not consider household income. If the price of a service is beyond a household’s means, then connectivity will not improve, and some people will remain excluded.

These findings emphasize the persistent digital divide between people living in urban areas and people living on First Nations reserves and in rural and remote communities. Being connected is no longer a luxury but a basic essential service. The government needs to take action so that there is affordable, reliable, high-speed connectivity coverage for Canadians in all areas of the country.

Mr. Chair, this concludes my opening remarks. We would be pleased to answer any questions the committee may have. Thank you.