Top News

OPINION: CRTC scales back Internet remote areas ambitions

Commission released eligibility criteria for accessing $750 million to expand Internet service to remote areas across Canada

BY PETER MENZIES
GUEST OPINION

When it comes to Internet service, whether its cellular, Wi-Fi, wireless, fixed or both, the thing that matters most is speed - or so most Kitsilano, B.C., condo dwellers would tell you.

Because if you live in, say, Lunenberg County or Stony Rapids or Cambridge Bay, the thing that matters most about Internet service is that you have it and at a price you can afford.

Not that speed doesn't matter in those places, too - it certainly does. But for large areas of Canada, availability of service is still not something to be taken for granted.

In early 2016, I was on a Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) panel whose job it was to set the nation's basic objectives for telecom services.

Two of the larger discussions in that three-week hearing involved affordability and what download and upload speeds the nation should aspire to.

And yes, there was also talk of low-orbit satellites dancing like balloons across the Arctic winter sky - but, hey, every hearing needs a unicorn or two.

In the end, among many things, the CRTC decided that Canada should aspire to have very ambitious download speeds of 50 mbps and upload speeds of 10 mbps available everywhere. Oh, and

cellular service to all homes and business, and along all major highways, presumably including the Alaska and Dempster all the way to Tuktoyaktuk.

The cost of that, as I recall, was ballparked at about $50 billion in 2016 dollars.

There actually weren't a lot of people in that hearing asking for speeds as high as 50 and 10. But I do recall a persuasive - if, on the face of it, preposterous - argument from Robin Winsor of Cybera Inc. favouring basic download speeds of 100 mbps.

The commission panel was also very aware - or at least I was - that the reason many areas are underserved is because, in economic terms, they don't constitute a market that offers either a swift or prosperous return on investment.

More important, however, is that the people who live in these areas are citizens who, without access to Internet service, can't participate economically or socially at the same level as those in Kitsilano condos.

Further, it became clear that robust upload speeds were necessary so that those in remote areas didn't just pull from the Internet, they could also push product onto it.

So, a fund drawn from Internet subscribers had to be created. Last month, two and a half years after that hearing, the CRTC released the eligibility criteria for accessing the $750 million that will be made available over the next five years to expand Internet service to remote areas.

Alas, there was much sadness among various activists when the commission accepted that projects offering speeds of 25 mbps download and 5 mbps up - half the objective - would be eligible for funding.

I get that there's sadness. But I also get that Canada is a very big country and why the CRTC set the eligible criteria lower than the aspirational target, to roughly what about half the broader population now receives.

As the CRTC said in its decision, 25 mbps and 5 mbps "would be meaningful and a significant first step towards meeting the universal service objective."

And, it went on, "the commission expects that proposed projects that do not meet the universal service objective-level speeds of 50 mbps download and 10 mbps upload will be scalable, meaning that speeds of 50/10 mbps will be provided to the target community at a future date through capacity upgrades. ..."

When 50 and 10 was made the target, many people viewed it as regulatory braggadocio and there are times when the CRTC has to be practical.

What point is there in having a fund with standards so unattainable that no one applies and nothing gets built?

On the other hand, I admit to a little sadness and concern that "at a future date" just becomes "never."

- Peter Menzies is a former CRTC vice-chair and newspaper publisher, and Troy Media columnist

Recent Stories