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Is access to the Internet essential for Canadian life, and is it affordable? These are the questions at the heart of the review of basic telecommunications services being conducted by the CRTC. The answers given will change the requirements telecommunications providers will have to meet to offer their services to Canadians. Matching these requirements to the needs of Canadians is a difficult but crucial task for the CRTC.
The question: “Is telecommunications essential?” was posed previously by the CRTC – in the late 1990s – for wireline telephone service. The CRTC answered that it was. They also specified the quality of service that had to be offered to be considered “basic”: touch-tone access; flat-rate local calls; access to the long distance network; a copy of the local telephone directory and access to the internet at dial-up speeds.
The CRTC also required telecom companies to contribute to subsidizing the cost of telephone services in “high cost serving areas”. These are areas where the cost of providing service is higher than the prices (and resulting revenue) that can be reasonably charged by telecom providers in these areas (largely rural, remote and northern communities). Although this subsidy is raised from subscribers rates, many Canadians still are unaware that they have been helping all Canadians have access to high quality telephone service at reasonable prices, anywhere in Canada.
Now, the Affordable Access Coalition (a group consisting of PIAC, ACORN Canada, the Council of Senior Citizens’ Organizations of B.C. (COSCO), the Consumers’ Association of Canada (CAC), and the National Pensioners’ Federation (NPF)) are making the case that broadband has to be added to the telephone as an essential telecommunications service for Canadians.
“There should be no question that access to high speed internet should be a right of all Canadians,” Geoff White, Counsel to PIAC asserts. “It’s absolutely essential for connecting to others, for accessing the digital economy, accessing important government services, for education, for creating small businesses, and so much more. The same way that the CRTC recognized that the telephone was an essential service for all Canadians, the case for broadband internet access for all is even more compelling,” he adds.
If broadband is essential to all, should it also then be affordable to all? This is a question PIAC has delved into extensively in its report released earlier this year: “No Consumer Left Behind: A Canadian Affordability Framework for Communications Services in a Digital Age”. PIAC found indications that many Canadians were sacrificing funds from their food budget, rent, and in certain cases, even medication to maintain broadband access. The report recommended that Canada establish an explicit, enforceable universal service obligation for telecommunications and broadcasting services, and require communications services to be affordable to all Canadians. PIAC presently is researching a follow-up report to attempt to quantify the affordability problems of Canadians and to propose further solutions. Meanwhile though, as part of the AAC, PIAC has spearheaded arguments at the CRTC that affordability of internet service is as essential as access to the internet.
“Lower income Canadians told us they need communications to fully participate in society, now more than ever,” said Alysia Lau, PIAC Legal Counsel and co-author of the report and PIAC’s counsel within the AAC. “They are trying to cope, but they also need more control over what they spend, and more choice of services.”
The AAC in its filings with the CRTC has proposed a “Broadband Deployment Subsidy Mechanism” which would have telecom companies put aside approximately 1% of their revenues each year into a fund which would be distributed through a competitive bidding process to companies willing to serve areas where broadband access was “above cost”. Additionally, 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 can apply the discount towards one of those services and make them more affordable.
Finally, the CRTC must decide, if broadband is an ‘essential service’, what would be an acceptable level (for example, minimum download and upload speeds) to be considered a basic service – much as they did for the minimum service characteristics of telephone service in the 1990s.
“I think we definitely would like to see broadband internet included as a basic telecom service and at significantly higher speeds than the aspirational targets now, which are 5 Mbps download speed and 1 Mbps upload speed,” Lau noted of PIAC’s hopes for the decision. “We would like to see 20 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload as the minimum by 2020. We think that’s what Canadian households will need going into the future, and those are the kind of speeds you would need if Canada wants to be competitive with other countries.”
The CRTC will be asking for public comment on these questions in the very near future to gather a better idea from Canadians themselves regarding their opinions on broadband services. This will be followed by a CRTC hearing in April 2016 where PIAC with the AAC will be working to make broadband affordable and accessible to consumers.