Rural Broadband Connects to Voters

Last week, the Conservatives unveiled their costliest direct spending commitment in this campaign yet – an additional $200 million for rural and remote broadband internet infrastructure.

As opposed to many tax breaks the Prime Minister has been announcing daily, this will be direct program spending from government, although Harper stopped short of saying when and for how long the money will be rolled out.

This new money comes only one year after the Conservatives announced up to $305 million to improve rural internet access, as part of the Digital Canada 150 Strategy. Contributions from this program were said to enable 365,000 additional rural households to connect to high speed (3-5Mbps) internet by 2017.

In 2009, as part of the stimulus package, the Conservatives injected $225 million to a new rural and remote internet access program that was not unlike the Liberal’s Broadband Canada program in the 1990s.

What is the allure of rural and remote internet that is driving the Conservatives to the significant direct spending it often decries in its opponents?

The issue seems to make the perfect political sense to parties, but particularly for the Conservatives. The program assists hundreds of small projects in many rural ridings, where the Conservatives are usually dominant. Announcements by local MPs and ministers can be made in numerous small towns and villages, bringing tangible good news directly to voters.

Beyond the politics, there are also economic and social studies that back the argument for better internet access for remote communities.

The opposition parties are also very much connected to rural internet coverage. The NDP called the Conservative pledge ‘insufficient’ and pointed to the need for “more choices for rural Canadians, lower priced options, and the kind of speeds that are available in rural communities in other countries.” Thomas Mulcair has also acknowledge broadband internet as an essential economic development tool during a tour of the Arctic last year.

The Liberals, with fewer rural seats, are taking a slightly different approach. Improving rural and remote internet access will be part of the party’s doubling of federal infrastructure spending. Investment in internet infrastructure at the local level will be decided by communities, provincial and territorial governments.

Expect the issue to reappear when the parties are shopping around for votes with appealing consumer policies, in the latter part of the campaign.