Focus: Broadband Internet an essential service?

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s decision to declare broadband Internet access an essential service is long overdue, says the lawyer for an Ottawa advocacy group.

The CRTC’s policy decision, delivered in December, says that all Canadian residential and business subscribers should be able to access Internet service with upload speeds of at least 10 megabits per second and download speeds of 50 Mbps. The commission estimates that around 82 per cent of the population are already covered by the new target, most of them in urban areas of the country.  

In addition to the speed requirements, the CRTC is aiming to make an unlimited data allowance option available for all broadband subscribers, and it also wants the latest mobile wireless technology expanded to as many major transportation roads as possible, as well as homes and businesses.

Before the ruling, a local landline telephone was the only CRTC-designated “basic telecommunications service.”

“Today’s decision signals a fundamental shift in our regulations for basic services from voice-related issues to broadband-related issues,” CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais told reporters at a news conference announcing the ruling.  

“The future of our economy, our prosperity and our society — indeed, the future of every citizen — requires us to set ambitious goals, and to get on with connecting all Canadians for the 21st century,” he added.

John Lawford, executive director and general counsel of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, welcomes the ruling, but he says he wishes it had come much earlier.

“We’ve been asking them to do it since 2010, and I think it should have happened a long time ago, but we are very pleased,” he says.

Lawford says he was a little surprised by the speeds selected by the CRTC, since PIAC had only requested minimum download speeds of 10 Mbps in its submission to the regulator.
However, Blais said the CRTC did not want to come in at a level below that of other nations such as the U.S. and Australia, which have set similar targets at 25 Mbps.

“I’d rather see them aim too high than too low,” Lawford says.

Tim Denton, a former CRTC commissioner who now runs his own technology and telecommunications law practice in Ottawa, says he welcomes the commission’s lofty goals.  

“Ambition is good and caution is not really going to be rewarded. It’s important to know that they are seized of the problem,” he says. “A century ago, we made the decision socially to ensure that clean drinking water was available to everyone, and we engineered our society to provide it. Broadband access may be of secondary importance compared to something like that, but it is getting up there when you think about how basic it is to connecting and participating in the modern world.”  

Toronto Internet lawyer Gil Zvulony says it’s hard to underestimate the economic and social benefits of high-speed Internet.

“I think having this type of access across the country, including in remote areas, is important for the proper development of Canada’s economy,” he says.

Yael Wexler, a lawyer with the Ottawa office of Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP, says that however laudable the CRTC’s goals, nobody should hold their breath waiting for the target to be hit.

“To put in context, it took the CRTC about 20 years to declare ‘mission accomplished’ in terms of achieving universal voice telephony,” she says. “I do think it’s a significant policy, but I don’t think the impact is going to be perceptible immediately or even in the short term. It’s going to take a long time.”

To get things started, the regulator will establish a $750-million fund, with contributions from Internet service providers, to invest cash over the next five years in projects designed to expand services into rural and remote areas. In that period, the CRTC aims to get the 18 per cent of Canadians without high-speed Internet — accounting for around two million households — down to 10 per cent.

In April, the CRTC released its first call for suggestions on how to run the fund, which will replace subsidies for phone services in remote areas. The first year of the fund will see a spending cap of $100 million, with the amount rising by $25 million each year until it hits an annual limit of $200 million. The commission says a review in the third year of its mandate will “ensure that the fund is managed efficiently and achieving its intended purpose.”  

Saskatchewan-based provider SaskTel has expressed skepticism about the plan, lamenting the loss of telephone subsidies at the expense of the new broadband fund, which it said could result in rate hikes for as many as 100,000 of its customers.

In a statement, Ron Styles, the company’s president and CEO, also cast doubt on the adequacy of the new high-speed Internet fund.

“Even though the commission has created a new fund for broadband service, the cost to take fibre to rural Saskatchewan in itself will far exceed the entire $750-million fund, and it is not clear how much will be available for investment in rural Saskatchewan or when,” Styles said.

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