Universal Broadband


Should all Canadians have access to broadband? The answer these days is almost invariably yes, but the more specific questions that follow are: How do we connect those without access (whose responsibility is it, who should pay for it), and what counts as broadband anyway?

The latter question results in different definitions or ‘targets’ for connectivity, most often as upload/download speeds, which can be mandated (hard targets) or ‘aspirational’ (soft targets). These targets often lag behind how people actually use the internet, presuming some ‘basic’ form of connectivity that doesn’t involve streaming media or uploads. The CRTC just revised such a target, from 2011’s measly 1 Mbps up and 5 Mbps down, to ten times that (10 & 50 Mbps), under the rationale that this level of connectivity is currently vital for Canadians. This is also presented as a forward-looking approach for a gigabit world, since the CRTC asserts that “the network infrastructure capable of providing those speeds is generally scalable, meaning that it can support download and upload speeds of up to 1 Gbps“.

The CRTC’s revised broadband target was the result of the basic service hearings (see previous post), which also led to a number of other decisions within a new regulatory policy (2016-496). These include forthcoming targets for latency, jitter, and packet loss, a new funding mechanism for extending broadband networks, and accessibility requirements for Canadians with disabilities. But while the specifics of these policies are important, the broader shift that has taken place was signaled by Chairman Blais’ decision to interrupt the hearings with a statement about just how vital broadband has become for Canadian “economic, social, democratic and cultural success”. This sentiment is echoed in the newly-written policy — Canadians require broadband to participate in society, even if this society tends to be characterized as a “digital economy”, with “social, democratic and cultural” dimensions getting less emphasis. Still, around twenty years after the arrival of the public (commercial) internet in Canada, the CRTC has finally declared that broadband is a vital need for all, and not some optional luxury.

All of this has happened in the same regulatory policy that signals a movement away from what was once considered a vital need for society — universal telephone access. In today’s world, differentiating digital networks from POTS (plain old telephone service) is increasingly pointless, but the CRTC’s decision works to “shift the focus of its regulatory frameworks from wireline voice services to broadband Internet access services“, creating a new “universal service objective” for broadband. 

Universal telephone service was a great twentieth-century achievement in Canada,  although there seems to be some controversy among telecom policy folks whether this resulted from regulation or the initiative of private industry. Positions on the matter seem to depend on whether one wants to credit industry or public policy, because for nearly all of the twentieth century (particularly since 1905) the two are hard to distinguish. Whether it was formalized or not, universal service (achieved by using urban networks to subsidize rural ones) was a key pillar of the monopoly era. Once the telephone ceased to be a luxury good, telephone companies were expected to honor the principle of universalism, and extending twisted copper to every home became part of the great nation-building project. However, the internet arrived at the close of the monopoly era, and the old telephone network was inadequate for what we would consider to be broadband today. As with telephony, internet access was initially seen as a luxury. Now that it is basic and vital, the existence of populations without access to broadband is a problem that cannot be ignored.

As I predicted in my previous post, the CRTC had to act in a way that at least appeared significant on this issue, but was unlikely to carve out a new leadership role for itself. Indeed, the Commission used its new policy and a related government consultation to once again urge the creation of a new digital strategy, and avoided getting involved in some major connectivity challenges that traditionally have not been its concern. Specifically, it was good to hear the CRTC acknowledge that access is not simply a matter of infrastructure, since there are many people in Canada who have ‘access’ to broadband, but do not use it effectively because they can not afford to or do not know how. But on the question of affordability, the CRTC stated that it doesn’t set retail prices, and instead works to promote competition (namely, through regulating wholesale access). There are some other organizations (including Rogers, TELUS, and not-for-profits) helping provide access to low-income populations, and the CRTC “does not want to take regulatory action that would inadvertently hinder the development of further private and public sector initiatives“. Similarly, while digital literacy is an acknowledged “gap”, addressing it “is not within the Commission’s core mandate. Multiple stakeholders are involved in the digital literacy domain, and additional coordination among these stakeholders is necessary to address this gap.

And so, we have a new universal service objective for broadband in Canada, we will soon have a new pot of money that can be awarded to companies to work towards it, but on the bigger issues of connectivity and digital policy, we are still waiting for coherence.


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