Broadband Internet is a basic service that Canadians should have access to regardless of where they live, according to a landmark CRTC ruling that could change the face of Internet access in the country.
The regulator announced that telecom providers will be made to contribute to a $750 million fund devoted to improving access to broadband Internet services in remote regions of the country. Additionally, local telephone subsidies will be re-routed to broadband Internet.
“Access to broadband Internet service is vital and a basic telecommunication service all Canadians are entitled to receive,” CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais said in a statement. “We are doing our part to bring broadband services to rural and remote communities.”
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The CRTC also directed ISPs to provide consumers with tools to help them manage data use and avoid overage charges, and recommended that mobile Internet access be available in homes and businesses as well as along major roads.
The ruling also upped the CRTC’s targets for what constitutes basic Internet services “that Canadians need to participate in the digital economy” to 50 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 10 Mbps for uploads, a ten-fold increase over target speeds established in 2011.
However, 82 per cent of Canadian households already enjoy that level of access, according to Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa.
“The CRTC is hoping in five years to hit 90 per cent, in effect an 8 per cent increase over 5 years and well over a billion dollars to get there,” Geist told Global News.
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Average speeds in Canada are 18.64 Mbps for downloads and 7.26 Mbps for uploads, according to a survey by the Canadian Internet Registration Authority.
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Geist says that among the most encouraging features of the CRTC ruling is the decision to shift subsidies from local telephone to Internet.
“One of the real highlights of the decision is the recognition that we live in a world where broadband really is the vital form of connectivity and communications, not local voice,” Geist said.
“Shifting those dollars toward broadband access is overdue, but give the CRTC full credit because not everybody was calling for that and they’ve taken an important step by doing it.”
The CRTC’s decision followed its Review of Basic Telecommunications Services consultation, which previously noted Canadians are utilizing the Internet “for an increasing number of uses (including banking, education, health, government services, shopping, entertainment, and social networking), resulting in greater demand for faster speeds.”
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But Geist cautions that government and industry cooperation will be vital if the CRTC’s decision is to result in tangible benefits for end consumers.
“The CRTC makes it very clear that this is not for the CRTC alone and, I think they’re right in that regard, the government plays a role here too,” he said.
“We’ve seen funding announcements but I think the government is going to have to continue to make this a focus if we are to achieve the target of universal affordable access,” he added.
Federal Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains announced last week that the government would be investing up to $500 million to bring high-speed Internet access to 300 rural and remote communities by 2021, as part of its “Connect to Innovate” program.
“By increasing access to high-speed Internet, the ‘Connect to Innovate’ program enhances our rural and remote communities’ ability to innovate, participate in the digital economy and create jobs for middle-class families,” Bains said.
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Geist says the most underwhelming aspect of the ruling was an insufficient focus on the issue of affordability.
“It’s somewhat unsatisfying to talk about access for all but then not talk about affordable access,” Geist said.
“Just because people have access to the service doesn’t mean that everyone can afford that service. I think there will be continuing pressure on the major Internet service providers to address some of the affordability concerns.”
According to the CRTC’s release, ISPs argued during consultations that “prices for broadband Internet access services are competitive and affordable, and that they compare favourably internationally,” and that pricing is not the sole issue affecting access to broadband services for some Canadians.
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Representatives of the digital rights advocacy group OpenMedia lauded the CRTC’s ruling.
“Canadians asked for universal Internet access, support for rural communities, world-class speeds, unlimited data options, and minimum guarantees for the quality of their Internet. And today, we won it all!” Josh Tabish, campaigns director for OpenMedia, said in an emailed statement. “With this ruling, the CRTC has finally listened to Canadians and agreed that residential and mobile Internet is a basic service required for modern life, as important as the telephone.”
“For too long, rural and underserved communities all across Canada have faced an uphill battle to participate meaningfully in our digital economy. Today’s decision will go a long way toward closing this digital divide. Now that the CRTC has spoken, we need to hold the Trudeau government accountable for ensuring this exciting vision becomes a reality,” Tabish added.
Twenty per cent of Canadian households did not subscribe to broadband Internet access at the end of 2013, according to a report by the Canadian Media Concentration Research Project.
— With a file from the Canadian Press