Last month, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) wrapped up a three-week hearing on the future of broadband in Canada. Nearly 90 academics, public interest groups, individuals, municipalities, and telecom companies appeared before the commission to comment on the feasibility of including high speed internet as a “basic telecommunications service.”
The scope of the proceeding can be broken down into three questions:
Is broadband an essential service?
What essential activities are Canadians taking part in online, and what service level is required to support those?
How do we pay for it?
Cybera, among others, submitted a response saying that broadband is an essential service, and the CRTC should have a hand in ensuring an affordable base service level is available to all Canadians. We argued that this would be supported, in part, by a CRTC regulated industry subsidy mechanism analogous to the existing fund for voice services. This funding would be made available not only to incumbent telecommunications companies, but to any ISP, including community broadband networks that are capable of providing the determined service levels.
The last time the CRTC reviewed basic services in Canada was five years ago, and at that time much of the conversation centred around telephony and phonebooks. While the CRTC refrained from regulating broadband into the Basic Service Objective (BSO) in 2011, they did set an aspirational speed target of 5 Mbps download, 1 Mbps upload. This service level is now widely considered to be outdated. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States, for example, recently defined broadband as a minimum of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up.
Just over a week into the hearing, CRTC Chair, Jean Pierre Blais, issued formal remarks on the progress and focus of the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services. While acknowledging that it was unusual for a Chair to make comments part way through a hearing, he stressed how important it was to have a coherent national broadband strategy, cautioning that “without action on the part of governments, the hearing may very well be the last best chance to get it right”:
Every hour that goes by without a more robust Canadian broadband strategy means unconnected Canadian citizens being disenfranchised from democratic debates, which are now ever present on digital platforms.
Every day that goes by without a more robust Canadian broadband strategy means a Canadian who is socially and economically vulnerable continue to be profoundly disadvantaged.
Every week that goes by without a more robust Canadian broadband strategy means many regions in this country are unable to attract or keep residents and businesses to ensure social progress as well as economic prosperity and growth.
Every month that goes by without a more robust Canadian broadband strategy means Canada is competitively disadvantaged as other countries move ahead and advance on their digital productivity, innovation, and competitiveness.
Cybera’s presentation at the hearing centred around the need for a national broadband strategy that sets both ambitious aspirational targets and mandates a level of basic broadband service that meets the needs of all Canadians. We noted that while municipalities, provinces, territories, and the federal government all have an important funding and planning role in this strategy, the CRTC has the opportunity to take the lead by defining broadband as a basic service. A video of Cybera’s appearance before the CRTC is available here (beginning at 2:57:15). You can also view the official transcript here (beginning at line 18355).
Parties who have already intervened can make final submissions and comments before May 25, 2016. The CRTC’s final decision is expected next year.