CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein says the regulator needs to decide whether to treat high-speed internet as a basic right, similar to how it governs phone service.

Hearings into the future of broadband internet in rural and remote parts of Canada kicked off this week in Timmins, Ont., with the federal regulator looking at whether it should declare such access a basic service.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission on Tuesday began hearing from interested parties on whether it should declare broadband internet a fundamental service that it needs to regulate, similar to how it governs basic phone service.

"The burning question now becomes whether the commission has a role to play in the provision of broadband internet services where it is currently not available," CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein said at the opening of the hearings.

A number of countries around the world have made broadband internet access a basic right and have imposed goals for connecting all citizens with certain speed levels. Finland, for example, in July made a connection of one megabit per second a legal right, with 100 megabits promised by 2015.

Other countries, frustrated with their large internet providers, have seen their governments get involved with building out high-speed access — Australia, for example, is spending $43 billion to build a National Broadband Network.

A recent report found that 30 per cent of Canadian homes did not subscribe to broadband, despite about 95 per cent having access to available options. Among the questions the CRTC is looking to answer through its hearings is why that is.

Von Finckenstein noted during his opening comments that residents of rural and remote Canada often have few if any options for internet providers. In many cases, relatively slow and expensive satellite access is the only choice.

Large internet providers such as Bell Aliant as well as satellite company Barrett Xplore on Tuesday argued that no intervention is necessary from the CRTC. They said that improving wireless and satellite options are providing better services and choice to rural Canadians.

On Wednesday, Winnipeg-based MTS Allstream said that rolling out broadband to rural and remote areas will cost about $7 billion over 10 years, which won't be achieved by allowing market forces to sort themselves out.

The hearings continue this week in Timmins and will move to Gatineau, Que. next week.