Quebec election: Couillard vows faster internet in remote regions

Originally published by Montreal Gazette
Author: Jacob Serebrin

HAVRE-AUBERT — Closer to Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia than anywhere else in Quebec, the Îles-de-la-Madeleine are among the province’s most outlying regions.

So it was fitting that here, on a small archipelago in the Atlantic, isolated from the rest of the province, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard promised to improve digital connections.

Couillard said Monday that if the Liberals are re-elected on Oct. 1, they’ll ensure high-speed internet and cellular service are available everywhere in the province by 2020.

The plan calls for 100 per cent of Quebecers to have access to high-speed internet within two years, with a minimum download speed of 50 megabits per second, and for 90 per cent of the province to have access to 100-megabits-per-second download speed and 20-megabits-per-second upload speed over the same period.

To do that, Couillard said, the party would name a minister responsible for the regions and their vitality. Accelerating the development of digital infrastructure would be the new minister’s No. 1 priority, he said.

The creation of the regional ministry would see the current Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Land Occupancy focus strictly on issues regarding urban communities, Couillard said — “laws related to municipalities, discussions around fiscal arrangements between municipalities and the government of Quebec.”

“We need someone to look specifically at the reality of our regions,” he said. “How to dynamically occupy our vast territory, how to make sure that we maintain equity between citizens of cities and regions like here or (Saguenay–Lac-St-Jean), for example, around access to new technology and the digital world, and that’s a lot to do. What I’ve discovered in recent years is that sometimes it’s better to have a minister that looks specifically at a single, or two, or three elements, rather than a huge portfolio.”

Couillard said that approach has worked with the appointment of Lise Thériault to the Ministry of Consumer Protection and Housing.

The Liberals would also add $200 million to an already announced commitment of $300 million, over five years, to improve digital infrastructure and cellular service to underserved and unserved regions, bringing the total committed funding for the Québec branché program to $500 million.

There are around 240,000 households in Quebec that don’t have access to the internet or have slow connections, according to the Liberal campaign.

There’s an increasing polarization, Couillard said, between the people who live in those communities and people who have high-speed internet access.

“Here, in the Islands, one of the founders of the audiovisual production company L’île imagin’air finds it faster to send a USB key by mail, with his projects, than to send it online,” Couillard said.

The promise comes on the heels of similar commitments made by the other parties.

On Friday, François Legault said the Coalition Avenir Québec would spend $400 million to bring high-speed internet and broadband cellular service to the entirety of Quebec.

The Parti Québécois has promised to spend $1.75 million to expand high-speed internet service in the province, and has said it will look at expanding cellular networks as the next step.

Québec solidaire has said it would create a public network to bring the internet to underserved regions.

Couillard said he believes there is a role for government to play, but he wants the private sector and non-profit organizations to also be involved.

In one town in Couillard’s riding, St-André-du-Lac-St-Jean, there’s no cellphone service, he said.

He said it’s a classic case, in that the town has only a few hundred residents and large cellphone companies won’t invest in infrastructure because there are too few people to make those investments profitable.

In that town, a local non-profit is receiving a government subsidy to build the infrastructure, which will eventually be turned over to a cellphone service provider.

While Couillard said the eventual operator will pay for the towers, it will be cheaper for them because they will not have to pay the full price of the infrastructure.

Cellular service is regulated by the federal government, but Couillard said Ottawa isn’t moving fast enough.

While he said he would welcome federal support, he plans to move forward with or without Ottawa.

At a rally Monday afternoon in the village of Fatima, Couillard made his first speech to supporters in several days.

He spoke about his record and the need to continue the progress his government has made.

“Who would have said in 2014 that today we wouldn’t be talking about unemployment on the Îles-de-la-Madeleine?” he said.

At one point, he switched to English to speak directly to Nancy Clark, a local party organizer who had spoken earlier at the rally.

“As someone who is more comfortable expressing myself in the English language, I thank you most of all for making me feel welcome in my home province,” she said to Couillard in English, during a speech that was mostly delivered in French.

“I want to tell you in English that for me, all Quebecers are equal — all. We’re all first-class Quebecers, French-speaking and English-speaking, and I will stand up for your rights and your institutions, always,” Couillard said a few minutes later. “I also say to young English-speaking Quebecers, as I’ve said a few times: this is your home, obviously, we need you, we want you. Stay with us, build Quebec with us, make it stronger. We’ll make it stronger together.”

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