It’s Time to Make the Internet Affordable for All

Recently, we wrote an article about the Ontario Electricity Support Program, a credit for low income households on their monthly energy bill. The subsidy is financed at a very small rate (fractions of a cent per kilowatt) by other ratepayers, but makes a huge difference for people who are having trouble keeping up with their monthly bills.

Giving affordable access to essential services is one of the cornerstones to building opportunity for low income Canadians. Currently, there is a question about whether broadband internet is an essential service, like electricity and heat.  The CRTC is holding a “Review of Basic Telecommunications Service” proceeding (which we here at PIAC call the “Basic Service” hearing) to decide this question.

In the 90’s, there was a similar debate over the telephone. Prices were too expensive for lower-income Canadians and some other groups and it begged the question, do people really need telephone service, or is it just an ‘entertainment’ device with some helpful aspects? Of course, people use their telephone to chat with friends, catch up with grandma, etc., but it also made access to government services much easier, it made communication for work or job interviews practical, and allowed people to stay connected with their communities. In the end, although there was an entertainment aspect, the CRTC decided in 1996 and in another decision in 1999 that the service was more than just those elements; it enabled people to fully participate in society; it was indeed essential.

However, in the same decision in 1996, the CRTC declared that telephone service was “affordable” simply because the  “penetration rate” (the overall number of households with telephone service) was high.  The CRTC used this sole measure despite suggested definitions of affordability from PIAC and other low-income and consumer groups that percentage of household income; a combination of price, income, spending priorities and consumer choice; and ability to maintain a service over time were all better indicators of affordability for low-income Canadians and other particular groups such as Canadians with disabilities.  The CRTC only proposed minor “bill management tools” regarding deposits, disconnections and controls on long distance calls, as a way to control costs – as well as requiring the companies to monitor affordability for a number of years.  This unfortunate decision meant that a discussion of subsidies to support low-income telephone access (and subsequently of wireless and broadband) disappeared for 20 years.

Now, at long last, we are having a very similar discussion about the internet. As we covered in a blog in December, some have tried to say that the barrier to internet access is not affordability, but any number of other reasons, from disinterest to lack of expert knowledge.  And once again, in the Basic Service proceeding at the CRTC, certain companies are arguing that only the penetration rate of internet service matters, and since it is rising, there is no affordability problem.

PIAC, in its work with ACORN Canada, looked at the barriers to internet access for low-income users specifically, and found that many users were sacrificing essentials in order to keep access to the internet. This, we believe, is the proper measure of affordability today: can you purchase telecommunications (especially broadband) at a price that does not require you to eat less, turn down the heat, or skip buying the kids new shoes?  We at PIAC believe broadband service is a natural successor to the telephone in terms of connection to society and access to information.  We also believe that the conversation about affordability must change so that we do not shut out many Canadians from the telecommunications system again.

The Basic Service hearing will begin on April 11, 2016 and the CRTC will hear from stakeholders and the public in order to decide if broadband is essential for Canadians and, if so, at what speeds and if, and if so, how will it be subsidized. PIAC, as a part of the Affordable Access Coalition (AAC), introduced its ideas in its Phase 1 intervention sent to the CRTC in July 2015. We followed up with more evidence including a poll of low-income internet users in February 2016.  You can find all our documents here. The CRTC subsequently commissioned its own poll about telecommunications affordability.  You can view more information about it here, and also view other news about the upcoming hearing.

Because it’s 2016, we shouldn’t be letting any Canadians fall behind in the digital economy. Everyone deserves a basic level of access to the internet so that they can pay their bills, download government forms for services, look for work, have access to educational materials, or, yes, enjoy entertainment delivered via the internet. The internet is a powerful tool that can help improve lives; it is undoubtedly an essential service, and we should ensure that access is affordable for all.

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