Submission to the CRTC
There has been a move at all levels of government, public services and the private sector to provide information and services through the Internet. When the delivery of public services has moved from the physical to the virtual, the government has a responsibility to ensure universal access to the Internet. Unfortunately, this is not the case across Canada. While the majority of Canadians have access to Internet services, costs for these services are substantially higher than most other developed countries and high speed Internet access is still not universal.
Because high-speed Internet is not treated as a public utility, access is not guaranteed.
Different speeds of Internet access correlate to other factors which drive inequality. As such, any disparity in access to Internet-based services exacerbates issues faced by those already marginalized. The Canadian government had previously identified it as a priority to ensure high-speed Internet service in communities across Canada. As a way to encourage private companies to invest in the infrastructure that would make this possible, countless incentives and concessions were granted to Internet service providers granting them borderline monopoly status. Despite this, rural areas, low-income neighbourhoods and certain other regions have seen little improvement in their Internet access, as these private telecommunications companies see little profit in investing in providing high-speed access to these communities.
An example that highlights the challenge for low-income individuals is the current restriction on access to Employment Insurance. Workers who are laid off or who work in seasonal employment access the Employment Insurance system and job searches through the government’s web portal. Additionally, the EI example highlights the need for high-speed Internet as video conferencing has been mentioned as the preferred way to provide personal interaction with EI applicants and that is not possible on low speed connections.
Secure, timely access
Access should not be thought of as just a way to access needed public services. High speed Internet has become necessary for finding employment, engaging in day-to-day business, attaining education and skills training, and access entertainment media and news. The digital divide for high-speed access exacerbates inequality in access to popular and national culture that should be a right for all Canadians.
Access in many communities is available at certain times in public libraries, however this access is often also slow, restricted to a limited set of hours, and can be difficult for those working multiple job, with childcare needs, providing live-in care to a family member, or with limited mobility. While libraries provide a needed and widely used portal for public Internet, there are limits to the level of privacy available when accessing the Internet in the library. This can have serious implications if an individual fails to log-out, a scenario acknowledged on government websites where users are warned to log-out of their session when they are finished.
For those who do not have the ability to make it to their public library, it is important that the public infrastructure necessary to access these online services is available and publicly supported. This should include public municipal Internet initiatives that see high-speed access not just as a necessary public service, but as a right for all Canadians whether they live in urban or rural areas.
A national public broadband strategy is necessary for the treatment of access to the Internet as a public utility so that all in Canada have access to affordable, reliable, secure high-speed Internet.
An example to avoid
Canadians should look to the USA as an example to avoid. An increasing number of states are caving to pressure from powerful telecom monopolies like AT&T, Comcast, and T-Mobile – corporations who have more concern for their profit margins than for their commitments to the public. These companies have been pushing for laws that make it all but impossible for municipalities to establish their own – in many cases faster and more affordable – Internet services.
This fight has its roots in legal commitments several cable and telecommunications companies made previously. In return for commercial monopoly rights in many parts of the country, these corporations promised to roll-out high speed access to millions of Americans, a promise that many have not kept.
As a result, some municipalities have taken it upon themselves to make wifi as publicly available as possible – recognizing that it is a challenge for any citizen to navigate today’s world without Internet access. Many cities own local electricity distribution companies that already have most of the infrastructure needed to offer cheap, non-profit, high-speed Internet to residents.
While Canada has done better in bridging this digital divide through the “active role of the state in supporting the production of culturally relevant digital content,” according to researchers at University of Washington, we still have a long way to go.
High speed access and municipal Internet service providers
The response in Canada has been similar to the US when it comes to limitations on high-speed Internet access. Innovative work by the Olds Institute for Community and Regional Development in Olds, Alberta shows one example of building access where none has existed. Supporting public community high-speed access is one way the government could help fill this gap in access that appears between rural and urban areas.
The need for affordable high-speed access has also been highlighted by ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) Canada in their campaign to close the digital divide in Canada. Thousands of low-wage families are being marginalized simply because they cannot afford access to the Internet now necessary to take advantage of many public services and job opportunities.
According to the OECD, Canada ranks outside the G8 and is 12th in the world for individual access to the Internet with over 13% of Canadians stating they do not have individual access. For high speed-access, we rank nearly the same (11th) but with only 33 out of 100 people having access. The picture becomes starker when considering Canada is 31st in the world for mobile access, with only 50% of those in Canada having high-speed access through a mobile device. It is without a doubt that this low level of access is because of cost of Internet services, mobile hardware and the failure of the government to treat high-speed Internet as a public utility.
Regulated affordable high-speed Internet access is achievable and necessary for Canadians.
The government and CRTC should:
- Establish a public broadband strategy.
- Mandate affordable fees.
- Provide material and regulatory support for public community broadband initiatives.
- Monitor, report on and support subsidies for computer hardware and software needed to access the Internet.