What good is declaring broadband a 'basic service' without regulating retail prices?
Without affordability thresholds, there's no guarantee that access in vulnerable communities will improve
Last week, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ruled that broadband would be considered a basic telecommunications service for all Canadians. Sounds great, right?
The decision sets a goal of giving all Canadians access speeds of at least 50 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of at least 10 Mbps, and options to get unlimited data plans in the next 10-15 years. To see to that target, the CRTC is requiring major telecom providers to contribute to a new $750 million infrastructure fund to deliver high-speed internet to some 300 rural communities over the next five years. Wonderful, yes?
Except according to some industry analysts, this ruling — as it stands now — is a whole lot of nothing. The targets are just that: targets. Not requirements. And the CRTC has chosen not to regulate retail prices.
Indeed, by choosing to appease internet service providers and telcos by setting neither affordability thresholds nor a formal buildout deadline, the CRTC took the teeth out of what could have been a galvanizing force for equitable internet access for the most vulnerable Canadians.
As of yet, we don't really know which communities the CRTC has prioritized in terms of immediate delivery of this new basic service. If we're talking about areas where access to education, information and an unfettered ability to communicate with the rest of the world would have the most transformative effect, surely Canada's remote and on-reserve Indigenous communities, refugees and new immigrant families would be on top of the impact list.
But how, exactly, will "market forces" — which the CRTC says it will rely upon to deliver affordable high-speed internet access — make that happen? Is the government supposed to step in with unpopular subsidies for communities of new Canadians, in a climate of rising anti-immigrant sentiments? And considering our abysmal record of providing the most basic of necessities to Indigenous communities, why should we trust that the "market" will somehow figure out a way to deliver affordable high-speed internet, when some reserves are struggling just to get clean drinking water?
The CRTC says it will intervene with a regulatory process only if market-forces fail, but it has not defined what would constitute an actionable degree of failure. This promise is particularly befuddling considering the telecom industry in Canada is arguably already in a state of failure, given a report commissioned by CRTC and released in August that pegged Canada's wireless and home internet prices within the highest three slots of the study group of peer nations. Statistics Canada also reported that in 2012, only 58 per cent of household with a combined income of $30,000 or less had internet access at home.
There's also reason to be skeptical about the CRTC's ability to deliver on its promise considering the real scale and scope of funding that would be required to make it happen. The CRTC's $750 million fund, together with the federal government's recent $500 million commitment to build high-speed internet infrastructure in remote and rural communities might sound like a lot, but it won't go very far when it comes to reaching communities like those in the Northwest Territories, which have the widest chasms to cross if we are truly looking to bridge the digital divide.
For comparison, consider that TELUS has invested some $2.85 billion in new infrastructure this year alone (that's according to Telus, mind you — we don't entirely know what it considers "infrastructure"), and its funding announcement in April promised "to invest $4.5 billion in British Columbia through 2019 to extend fibre optic infrastructure directly to thousands of homes and businesses in rural and urban communities." Compared to that, the CRTC's $750 million for delivering access to all of Canada comes off as a rather meagre investment.
Means to an end
Let's remember that access only starts with infrastructure — is a means to an end. What is the end we want to get behind? In 2017, we should be planning to provide unlimited, inexpensive and efficient internet service to rural and remote households, as well as Wi-Fi hotspots in community centres, libraries and public housing. Those services won't mean anything, still, unless rural and remote communities have access to affordable hardware through which they can make use of them.
But above all: the CRTC needs to come out with hard targets, concrete affordability thresholds and a real plan of action to bridge the digital divide, once and for all. Otherwise, the prospect of high-speed internet for all Canadians is little more than a high-minded goal, from a regulator with a poor track record of success.