National Broadband and Mobile Coverage Should be an Urgent Priority

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

In 2020, for many Canadians in remote and Northern regions – in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities – access to reliable cell phone coverage is still a distant reality. That should be a national scandal. 

Politicians of all stripes continue to promise Northern residents that broadband internet and full cell phone coverage is a priority of national importance. In this day and age, internet and mobile access is tantamount to electricity and telephone access from sea to sea to sea. 

Your area code should not determine your access to modern communication and economic tools. 

The current federal government has made mobile coverage one of its policy goals, but to suit its urban and suburban voting public. One recent policy platform reads: “As Canadians, we pay some of the highest prices in the world for cell phone service while Canadian telecom companies are among the most profitable in the developed world.” 

Of course, this is relevant, but what does this pledge mean to Northern Canadians who live in regions where even the regional carriers can’t provide reliable cell service? 

How does cell coverage work in Canada? Well, Canada has the three big national networks – Telus, Bell, and Rogers. Telus provides the best service, while the other two are close behind. However, between the three of them, they cover less than 30 percent of Canada’s vast geography, even if they provide coverage for the majority of Canadians, but only because we live in a heavily urbanized country. To fill in some of these service gaps, regional networks step in, including Freedom Mobile, SaskTel, and Videotron. At one point, MTS served Manitoba but was acquired by Bell in 2017. For example, SaskTel provides almost full access to the southern half of Saskatchewan and Bell and Telus serve some of the most populated Northern communities, but there are places north of Saskatoon that are underserviced. There is almost no Rogers access in Saskatchewan except on major highways. 

While Canada’s eight largest urban centres have almost 100 percent coverage, obviously Canada has a large landmass that is sparsely inhabited and underserviced. Some reasons are geographic, such as in British Columbia where the mountainous topography creates challenges for good cell phone signals. 

There are also mobile virtual network operators, such as Fido, Koodo, and Virgin Mobile, that buy service from other big national networks and sell it back to customers at cheaper rates. However, even these cannot meet all needs. 

Sometimes it really comes down to being located on the wrong side of the tracks, in a manner of speaking. Your region just may be unlucky because there is no capacity. 

For these underserviced regions, spotty cell phone coverage is part of the northern alienation they feel from the centre of power. They view it as part of the infrastructure neglect that has often become normalized by politicians in urban and suburban ridings across Canada. 

This sense of alienation is exacerbated when Northern and remote region Canadians hear about cell phone infrastructure announcements in more politically important regions. For example, in July 2019, the media reported on a $152 million investment between three levels of government to address cell service gaps in eastern Ontario. While this investment included many rural communities – which is of course good news – many Northern residents cannot react but cynically when their own complaints go unheeded year after year. 

Come election time, politicians of all political parties speak eloquently about the need for improving the quality of life for Northern and isolated communities, but actual investment in mobile and digital infrastructure comes in small steps and always seems to come second to the more populated parts of the country. Moreover, with the high number of Indigenous Canada located in Northern and remote regions, governments that claim to be focused on Indigenous economic reconciliation, allowing mobile access in the North to lag behind all other regions makes that commitment sound shallow. 

The Conservative Party and the Green Party are in the middle of leadership campaigns. They should be heeding this. 

All political parties should make national broadband and mobile coverage an urgent priority as important as rural electrification was in this country at one point. This prioritization will also deal with twin challenges of addressing northern alienation and Indigenous reconciliation together. 


Joseph Quesnel is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Photo by Igor on Unsplash