Canada’s telecom regulator has declared broadband internet access a basic service across the country, just like current landline telephone service.
But the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission says it can’t make full access to ultra-high speed services a reality on its own, and will require business and government help.
The CRTC says the aim is to ensure service providers (ISPs) offer internet services at speeds of at least 50 megabits per second for downloading data, and 10 Mbps for uploads. In a much-anticipated decision released Wednesday, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission declared that all residents are entitled to access voice and broadband Internet services on fixed and mobile wireless networks.
The ruling compels telecommunications providers to help fund $750-million in broadband infrastructure in rural and remote areas over the next five years, sets ambitious speed targets and requires them to offer an unlimited data plan.
The CRTC will mandate Internet speeds of :
50 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 10 Mbps upload – 10 times faster than existing speed targets, which Blais said “didn’t cut it anymore” given the exploding demand for data.
It also declared that the latest wireless technology should be available on major roads and directed wireless providers to offer mobile services for disabilities within six months.
To pay for this massive improvement in broadband service – only 82 per cent of Canadians had access to the new target speeds as of 2015, according to the CRTC – the regulator will stop subsidizing voice services and shift the money to broadband instead. The Telecommunications Act gives the CRTC the power to force any provider to contribute to a fund that supports access to basic services.
The local voice subsidy, which was $100 million in 2016, will be phased out. The CRTC will still collect the money from telecom service providers, but it will go to a $750-million fund dedicated to broadband projects in rural and remote communities.
The CRTC expects to double its annual collections to $200 million within five years by requiring providers such as BCE Inc., Rogers Communications Inc. and Telus Corp. to contribute a percentage of their retail Internet revenue. These costs may be passed on to consumers.
“Even at a $200 million amount, that comes out to about 50 cents per subscriber per month. I think that’s a price that makes eminent sense when we want to make Canada competitive in a digital economy,” Blais said in an interview.
To access cash from the fund, which will be managed at arm’s length, applicants must submit proposals to upgrade infrastructure in underserved areas. Up to 10 per cent of the annual fund will go to satellite-dependent communities, such as those in Nunavut and Northern Quebec, for the first five years of the program.
The CRTC hasn’t worked out the exact funding mechanism yet, but will start a public process to do that in early 2017.
But the CRTC stopped short of regulating retail Internet rates or setting a price cap for basic Internet service, much like the skinny basic television package it mandated earlier this year. Blais said regulation of wholesale rates is enough at this point.
Blais emphasized the CRTC alone cannot solve the digital divide that impacts rural and low-income Canadians. He praised Rogers and Telus for their affordable Internet programs for low-income Canadians and said affordability issues are best solved by governments in conjunction with carriers. The CRTC submitted a report to the federal Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development
“All players in the Canadian communications landscape will need to do their part to ensure Canadians have access to the services they need to participate in the digital economy,” Blais said.
Consumer advocates such as OpenMedia applauded the decision as a game changer for underserved communities with the caveat that it won’t be much help for those who can’t afford the rates.
“The speed is good, the recognition that this is what the world is now is good, the money is decent… but if you’re not a middle income person, you’re out of luck,” John Lawford of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre said.
Rogers, which said it already offers unlimited plans at speeds 20 times faster than the new target, acknowledged high-speed Internet is a must for Canadians.
“While there are still many details to be worked out, we are encouraged by this reasonable plan to help increase access to Canadians in hard to reach areas of our country,” Rogers senior vice president David Watt said in a statement.
Bell said it was reviewing the decision and Telus did not respond to a request for comment.
The CRTC initiated a review of basic services in 2015 to update the rules for the digital era where Internet access can be crucial for education, work and health alongside social connection.
Previously, the basic service objective consisted of a local landline, dial-up Internet, access to the long distance network, voice message relay service (a feature that enables people with hearing or speech disabilities to use the phone), emergency services and a printed copy of the local phone book upon request.
It was created in 1999 to ensure all Canadians had access to affordable, high-quality telecom services even if they lived in rural and remote areas. The subsidy regime that placed a levy on larger providers was established the following year.
When the CRTC last reviewed the basic service requirements in 2011, it found no need to declare broadband a basic service since “virtually all” Canadians (95 per cent) already had access.
An estimated 99.5 per cent of Canadians had broadband access by the end of 2015, according to the CRTC. That number drops to 93 per cent when excluding Internet accessed via satellite or LTE networks.