The future of Internet access in Canada takes centre stage this week at a major hearing focused on whether it’s time to update the rules associated with universal access to communications services. Canada has long had regulations in place that ensure that basic telephone service is available to everyone, using a funding model that subsidizes higher costs in rural communities.
My weekly technology column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that for most Canadians, however, basic telephone service no longer adequately addresses their needs. Today the Internet is widely recognized as the most indispensable communications tool, providing access to everything from electronic messaging to entertainment. While debates over broadband access have lingered for more than 15 years, there are still thousands of Canadians without service, owing to the lack of access or affordability.
The urban-rural digital divide frequently dominates Internet access discussions, yet a comprehensive national policy must also take affordability into account. Indeed, recent data indicates that there are two digital divides in Canada: the divide between those with and without access to high-speed Internet services (with access rates lower in rural communities) and the divide between subscribers and non-subscribers among those that have access. Affordability remains one of the most commonly cited reasons for not subscribing to an Internet access service despite its availability.
With dozens of groups slated to appear at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) hearing, there will be considerable pressure to declare Internet access an essential service and establish policies that ensure that all have affordable access.
A universal service program for the Internet would be a step in the right direction, but it would be a mistake to leave the issue solely to the telecommunications regulator. Fostering universal, affordable broadband access is a job for everyone with the need for active participation from all levels of government, the private sector, and community organizations.
Despite the federal government’s commitment to infrastructure spending in the most recent budget, very little was allocated in the short term for broadband services. Ensuring that all communities have access will require a public investment – the private sector will unsurprisingly prioritize the most profitable markets leaving some communities without access – along with policy frameworks that facilitate increased competition from independent providers and support the emergence of community-owned broadband services.
There are also opportunities for provincial and municipal governments in this area. Provincial governments should leverage existing networks, particularly those within education and health institutions, to bring access to the wider community. At a municipal level, using local construction initiatives to lay high-speed fibre accessible to any provider offers the chance to dramatically alter the competitive landscape.
The affordable access solution must also extend beyond government policy and funding with the private sector playing a critical role. For example, last week Rogers announced that it is extending its Connected for Success program to its entire cable footprint, effectively making affordable broadband access available to thousands of low-income Canadians.
The Rogers program first launched in Toronto in 2013 in partnership with Toronto Community Housing, offers broadband access for $9.99 per month. Once the program is fully implemented, the low cost service will be available to residents at more than 500 non-profit housing organizations.
The Rogers program is notable in part because it is the only such initiative in Canada. While the major telecom companies seemingly have little trouble matching price increases, they have been discouragingly unwilling to mirror the Connected for Success program.
On top of the issues around access and affordability, there is also the need for community programs dedicated to digital literacy, so that those new to the Internet can maximize the benefits. While younger Canadians have never lived in a world without the Internet, many others do not know where to start.
The Internet has dramatically changed our world, touching on virtually every aspect of society. Changing our rules on essential services to account for the digital world is long overdue.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can be reached at www.michaelgeist.ca.