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At the end of 2016, PIAC participated in an important hearing regarding the future of affordable and accessible internet. The ‘Review of Basic Telecommunications Services’ was an opportunity to address not just the availability and speed of internet, but the very real problems faced by low-income Canadians. PIAC has worked extensively with ACORN and through its own research on reports such as “No Consumer Left Behind” in 2015, and a follow-up to that report in 2016.
The message in those documents was clear, yes, Canadians were paying for internet, but many were sacrificing other important goods and services and others still were struggling with the cost. Members of ACORN gave their testimonies, stating the hardships they personally face financially and also the importance the internet has to them in their daily life. When the decision was initially announced and the internet deemed a ‘basic service’ it seemed like a big win for consumers but something was missing. The commission mandated a “basic” speed of 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload, and a subsidy to ensure internet service was built out to more Canadians, however it did nothing for those ACORN members who told the CRTC the internet was not truly affordable.
PIAC, as part of the Affordable Access Coalition, proposed a subsidy that would allow low-income Canadians to put $10.50 or $20.50 towards any internet plan that worked best for them. In their decision, the CRTC continued to acknowledge that affordability was an issue for many Canadians, but decided not to act, only to make a submission to the Government of Canada’s Innovation Agenda asking for consideration of this problem by the Federal Government. The trouble with this approach is that it passes the buck: it gives no relief to anyone anytime soon.
When Canada’s 2017 budget was announced, PIAC’s fears were confirmed. The federal government’s Budget 2017, Building a Strong Middle Class, provided only $13.2 million over 5 years to support low-income Canadians’ access to broadband – an amount over 100 times lower than suggested by PIAC and other public interest groups in evidence presented last year in the CRTC hearing.
“This Budget was a cruel joke for low-income Canadians struggling to afford broadband internet for education, health, employment and other key services,” said John Lawford, Executive Director and General Counsel of PIAC. “Acknowledging such a fundamental problem with a token amount and having the gall to call it an ‘Affordable Access program’ is insulting,” he added.
The support given by the budget essentially amounted to the funding of a tool which would identify low-income households for the purpose of assisting with internet affordability. However, as there is no plan for affordability in place, this database does little to address the problem which keeps getting tossed back and forth like a hot potato.
PIAC, as part of the Affordable Access Coalition (AAC), is continuing to work to make the income affordable for all Canadians. PIAC recently filed an application asking the commission to review its decision on affordability, to establish an affordability fund as it requested in the review at the end of last year. We believe that the CRTC has the right to, and should, implement the AAC’s affordability plan, or at least some plan so that low-income consumers have access to the internet without sacrificing other vital needs every month.