'We need to fix this': Big telcos hoard fibre optic networks despite CRTC order

Fibre optic cable capable of carrying more than 1,000 megabits of data per second has been called the future of Canada's digital economy. But more than a year after the CRTC ruled the big telcos had to open their fibre optic networks smaller players, the only way to get a fibre internet connection in Canada is still with one of the big guys.

Lack of competition among internet providers holds Canada back, critic warns

Fibre optics cables are able to transmit far more data than conventional copper wiring. (Colin Hall/CBC)

More than a year after the CRTC ruled the big telecommunications companies must share their fibre optic networks with smaller competitors, it still isn't happening.

And it could be 15 months or longer before Canadians can get an ultra high speed fibre connection from smaller providers such as Start Communications, TekSavvy, and VMedia.

"It's something our customers ask us about all the time and we have to tell them it's still not available to us at any price." says Bram Abramson, chief legal and regulatory officer for TekSavvy Solutions. 

"And that's an increasingly challenging part of our business."

We need to fix this problem— CYBERA CEO Robin Winsor
Unlike copper, which sends information via an electrical impulse down a metal line, fibre sends data through pulses of light, offering potentially unlimited speeds, unaffected by electrical interference, distance, or number of users.
Bram Abramson of TekSavvy looks forward to the day the company can wholesale fibre lines to their customers. (Martin Trainor/ CBC)

Fibre will be the connector, the central nervous system of the global economy, a backbone for the internet of things where just about everything, every coffee maker, every car, every elevator, every shopping cart, will connect to the internet and each other. 

The CRTC ordered big telecom companies such as Bell, Rogers, Telus, Shaw, and Videotron to share their fibre optic networks with smaller competitors back in July 2015. 

Bell appealed that decision to both the CRTC itself and the federal cabinet, arguing in part that the regulator's ruling  interferes too much with market forces.

Bell's appeal held things up for 10 months, until Navdeep Bains, the minister responsible for the telecom industry, announced this past May that the Liberal government had rejected Bell's arguments.

Then it was another month before the CRTC announced it too had rejected Bell's appeal. Bell and the other big players have long argued hard against sharing their fibre networks, suggesting that forcing them to allow rival companies to profit from fibre optic cables would kill any incentive to invest in laying new ones.

Lack of competition

That argument was dismissed by the CRTC and others who say that without access to those networks, Canada risks falling farther behind the rest of the world.

"There's a lack of competition." says Robin Winsor, CEO of CYBERA, a public agency in Alberta helping to develop cyber-infrastructure.
Robin Winsor warns that Canada risks falling farther behind the rest of the world when it comes to technology infrastructure. (CBC/ Dave Rae)

"And that means that our costs of doing business are higher than those in Korea, the United States, the U.K.  We need to fix this problem."

Winsor notes many of the same arguments raised by Bell are similar to those made against breaking the old telephone monopoly in Canada. 

"Those who are old enough will remember we all used to have copper lines owned by one supplier.  And then when the CRTC required opening up that copper line to competition we all had choice on our telephone carriers. The same is now true with internet."

Moreover, Winsor says widespread access to fibre is essential for Canada to compete in a global economy.

"It's how we move our goods from where they're produced to where they're consumed in a digital economy. And just like the railroad when Canada was first opened up, we have to have an efficient way of connecting everybody. Copper's great but these days we need fibre. We haven't got it everywhere and we need to figure out how to do that."

Delay benefits big telcos

Critics say it's in Bell's and others' interests to delay as long as possible because with every passing day, the big companies are signing up customers to a service their smaller competitors can't provide.

Alf Schroth is one of those customers. A newly minted empty nester, he is selling his Waterloo, Ont., home and downsizing to an apartment.
Alf Schroth wanted to stay with TekSavvy but is forced to chose between Bell and Rogers. (Mark Bochsler/CBC)

He wanted to stay with his current small provider TekSavvy. 

"But when I went to look, I could only find Bell and Rogers available in [my new] building" Schroth says, because the building is connected to the internet only via fibre.

Schroth says he was paying $49.95 per month for his copper connection with TekSavvy.

He says his new fibre connected Rogers service is $65 per month.  But in order to get that price, Schroth says he had to sign a two-year contract.  After the two years are up, the price jumps to $87. 

"I'm not happy. I'm not happy at all," Schroth says. 

When will it actually happen?

The CRTC this week announced it had determined the disaggregated high-speed access configurations in Ontario and Quebec for Bell, Videotron, Rogers and Cogeco.

It's one step in the process. The next will be when the regulator sets the wholesale rates smaller competitors will be charged for fibre access.

That may not happen until late 2017. 

"As indicated in the CRTC's three-year plan, these steps will be completed in this fiscal year with the final rates to be set next year," says Patricia Valladao, manager of media relations for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. She notes the regulator may approve interim rates sooner, at which point competitors could request access.

But TekSavvy's Abramson says it's possible it may be even longer before they are able to offer fibre internet service. 

"It's not an encouraging number to us. It's not an official number.  And it's not one in particular that we've quoted to our customers and others because that's not a [timeline] that we've been given."


Aaron Saltzman

Senior Reporter, Consumer Affairs

Aaron Saltzman is CBC's Senior Business Reporter. Tips/Story ideas always welcome.


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