TORONTO (Reuters) - The Canadian government on Tuesday invited remote communities across the country that lack high-speed Internet access to make a claim on some of the C$305 million ($284 million) it plans to spend over the next three years to upgrade access.
But consumer group OpenMedia.ca was skeptical of the move, skewering both the Conservative government and Canada's telecom companies for failing to finish earlier projects on time or to the scale required.
The government's Connecting Canadians plan aims to deliver high-speed Internet - judged to be speeds faster than 5 megabits per second (5 Mbps) - to 280,000 households that it says sit below that line.
Critics say, however, that the government's minimum "high-speeds" are not fast enough for users to participate in a number of data-intensive activities, including video conference calls.
The plan "will still leave many Canadians struggling to catch up with our global counterparts when it comes to broadband access, reliability, and speed," said Steve Anderson, executive director of OpenMedia.ca.
The country's telecom regulator wrote to BCE Inc, Telus Corp, and Manitoba Telecom Services last month, concerned they would miss an end-August deadline to complete remote access projects already underway.
The regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), said it is considering what penalties to impose if the deadline is missed.
Telus said it is committed to its obligations but that in less than 30 of the 159 communities it needs more time to implement complex transmission assets via logging roads or helicopter. BCE and Manitoba Telecom were not immediately available to comment.
Industry Minister James Moore likened the launch to such pivotal moments in the country's history as the completion of a transcontinental railway and the opening of the Northwest Passage.
He said areas eligible for funding will be made public later this year and companies invited to pitch for connection projects.
The move is part of a long-promised comprehensive plan for digital communications and commerce that Ottawa says will also strengthen online privacy protection and beef up cybersecurity.
Many of the underserved areas shown on a government map are in the Prairie provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta and farther west in British Columbia. Connection would mean some 98 percent of Canadian households would be linked to online services by 2017, the government said.
"Connecting Canadians is about ensuring that Canadians, whether they live in urban centers or remote regions of the country, have access to the latest wireless technologies and high-speed networks at the most affordable prices possible," Moore said in a statement.
An OECD broadband report released on Tuesday ranked Canada quite highly with over 70 percent of households connected, while falling behind France, the United Kingdom, and well behind the United States on wireless penetration.
The new infrastructure being funded can be either wired or wireless, the government said.
Reporting by Alastair Sharp; Editing by Peter Galloway and Gunna Dickson