When it comes to internet service, regardless how it is delivered, the one thing that matters most is speed – or so most Kitsilano condo dwellers would tell you.
Because if you live in, say, Lunenberg County or Stony Rapids or Cambridge Bay, the thing that matters most about internet service is that you have it and at a price you can afford. Not that speed doesn’t matter in those places too — it most certainly does — but for large geographic areas of Canada, availability of service is still not something that can be taken for granted.
In early 2016 I was on a Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) panel whose job it was to set the nation’s basic objectives for telecom services.
Two of the larger discussions in that three-week hearing involved affordability and what download and upload speeds the nation should aspire to obtain. And yes, there was also talk of low orbit satellites dancing like balloons across the Arctic winter sky but, hey, every hearing needs a unicorn or two.
In the end, among many other things, the CRTC decided that Canada should aspire to have very ambitious download speeds of 50 Mbps and upload speeds of 10 Mbps available everywhere. Oh, and cellular service to all homes and businesses and along all major highways, presumably including the Alaska and Dempster all the way to Tuktoyaktuk. The cost of that, as I recall, was ballparked at about $50 billion in 2016 dollars. There actually weren’t a lot of people in that hearing asking for speeds as high as 50 and 10 but I do recall a persuasive, if on the face of it, preposterous argument favouring basic download speeds of 100 Mbps.
The CRTC panel was also very aware — well, at least I was; I shouldn’t speak for others — that the reason many underserved areas are, well, underserved is because in economic terms, they don’t constitute a market that offers either a swift or prosperous return on investment. More important, however, is that the people who live in these areas are citizens who, without access to internet service can’t participate economically or socially at the same level as those in Kitsilano condos. Further, it became clear that robust upload speeds were necessary so that those in remote areas didn’t just pull from the internet, they could push product onto it.
So, a fund drawn from internet subscribers had to be created and last month, 2-1/2 years after that hearing, the CRTC released the eligibility criteria for accessing the $750 million that will be made available over the next five years to expand internet service to remote areas.
Alas, there was much sadness among various activists when the commission accepted that projects offering speeds of 25 Mbps download and five Mbps up — half the objective — would be eligible for funding. I get that there is sadness. But I also get that Canada is a big country — so big — and why the CRTC would have set the eligible criteria, which is roughly that to which about half the population currently subscribes, lower than the aspirational target.
As the CRTC said in its decision, 25 and five “would be meaningful and a significant first step towards meeting the universal service objective.”
And, it went on, “the commission expects that proposed projects that do not meet the universal service objective-level speeds of 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload will be scalable, meaning that speeds of 50/10 Mbps will be provided to the target community at a future date through capacity upgrades. . . ”
For this, CRTC chair Ian Scott was smacked about by several critics for his lack of ambition, perhaps unfairly or at least prematurely. At the time when 50 and 10 was made the target there were many people who viewed it as regulatory braggadocio and there are times when the CRTC has to be practical. What point, one might ask, is there in having a fund with standards so unattainable that no one applies and nothing gets built?
On the other hand, I admit to a little sadness myself and concern that “at a future date” just becomes “never.”
Troy Media columnist Peter Menzies is a former CRTC vice-chair and newspaper publisher.