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Summer 2016 Newsletter: Basically Broadband

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The communication needs of Canadians have changed a great deal over the years. In the 1990’s, we saw an individual telephone line become a basic service as a result of a CRTC hearing. Now, in 2016, the CRTC is once again looking at the basic communication needs of Canadians, and specifically, whether the internet is essential and affordable.

The CRTC’s Basic Telecommunications Services (BTS) Hearing was a 3 week hearing which began on April 11th in Gatineau, Québec. During the hearing, the CRTC heard from a wide array of stakeholders regarding three specific issues: whether the internet was essential for all Canadians to paricipate in Canadian society, whether it was accessible to all, and whether it is affordable. The first half of the hearing primarily featured groups arguing that the internet should be an “essential” service. PIAC, as part of the Affordable Access Coalition (AAC), was among those arguing for this distinction.

The AAC, regarding access, proposed a “Broadband Deployment Subsidy Mechanism” which would have telecom companies put aside approximately 1% of their revenues each year into a fund. The fund would then be distributed through a competitive bidding process to companies willing to serve areas where broadband access was “above cost” and therefore unlikely to be served with broadband. Additionally regarding affordability, the AAC proposed an Affordability Funding Mechanism levied at a similar percentage, but which would be reserved for low-income Canadian households who subscribe to telecom services – so that they could apply the discount towards one of those services and make them more affordable.

“The proposal we put forward for the affordability subsidy doesn’t tell the companies what price to offer their services at. It is just a discount available to qualifying consumers for either $10.50 or $20.50 off whichever plans are available. This proposal leaves the subscriber to find the best package for them,” noted John Lawford, Executive Director of PIAC. “If there’s nothing affordable available in the market, we believe companies would design more low income packages once they see a subsidy is attached. Our hope is that they will design something that will meet the required speed the CRTC decides, and that would fall into the $30 or $40 range. If you make it attractive for service providers to design something on their own that will satisfy the market need, we anticipate that they’ll actually promote it and will want to sign people up. If you just tell them to provide a $30 plan some will be losing money, which means they will resist signing up low income customers.”

In addition to presenting a thorough plan for subsidizing broadband access and deployment, ACORN Canada, as a member of the AAC also presented at these CRTC hearings. Some of ACORN Canada’s low-income members spoke about their own struggles with the affordability of services and their growing dependence on broadband. The personal stories appeared to have a great impact on the Commission and played a part in a significant turn in the hearings.

Just before many of the big telecom companies were to present their views on broadband and affordability, CRTC Chairman Jean-Pierre Blais stated that, in the CRTC’s view, broadband was vital for Canadians, the same way that the phone was in 1993.

“Individual Canadians came to testify that they did not choose to face life in poverty or challenged by physical or mental disabilities. Yet governments at all levels have chosen to ask these citizens to seek government services through digital platforms,” CRTC Chairman Jean-Pierre Blais stated before the second week of the April hearing. “Vulnerable individuals burdened by social and economic insecurity came to testify that the calculation for the level of social assistance available from governance does not take into consideration the cost of connectivity that is nevertheless essential to schedule medical appointments, ensure success in school for their children, facilitate searching for a job, and to do many of the online activities many of the rest of us take for granted.”

The Commission’s apparent acceptance of broadband as an essential service means Canada can finally move forward and fix what has been a great burden on low-income consumers. The sacrifices many were making to afford their communications service, including foregoing medication or dipping into food budgets, was proof enough for the CRTC that the internet was no longer just entertainment.

“The internet is already the place to access information, we’re only now catching up. Services such as Telehealth and educational videos; Health Canada is putting video info online. Service Providers have argued that video is nice to have, but it’s not basic,” Geoff White, Counsel to PIAC points out. “When the Commission said ‘all Canadians should have access to all telephone services’, they didn’t pay attention to how much time you spent chit chatting with your friends, so we’re saying you shouldn’t be looking at how much time is spent on so-called trivial things. It’s patronizing. It’s a no brainer that high speed internet is essential. You can barely get by without it. That’s why we put those two proposals on the table to fund deployment to high cost areas and to help low-income households out.”

With the hearings now finished, the CRTC has a lot information to consider in making its final decisions on the basic service. PIAC and the AAC are hopeful that the focus of the CRTC’s efforts in this area continues to be getting low-income Canadians the assistance they need so as to be able to fully participate in society by having access to the same basic services as all other Canadians. A decision on Canada’s broadband future is likely to be issued by early 2017.

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