The foundation of any national digital policy is affordable high-speed Internet access. Given the importance of the Internet to education, culture, commerce, and political participation, most countries have established ambitious targets to ensure that all citizens enjoy access to reasonably priced broadband services.
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes the importance of broadband is typically taken as a given, but Canadian broadband policy remains discouragingly incoherent and unambitious. The government and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission have different targets, while the government has established relatively slow speed goals that will still leave three-quarters of a million Canadians without access.
The inconsistent broadband goals are difficult to understand. The CRTC’s 2015-2016 Priorities and Planning Report target for broadband access is 5 megabits per second download for 100 per cent of the population by the end of 2015. Meanwhile, the government’s target will take many more years to complete and does not envision universal access.
Last summer, Industry Minister James Moore promoted the government’s commitment to broadband access with “Connecting Canadians”, a program to bring Internet access to 280,000 Canadians without access or with slower speeds. According to a government release, by 2017 the $305 million investment would extend access at 5 megabits per second to 98 per cent of Canadian households. The department no longer talks about 2017. According to Industry Canada’s recently released 2015-2016 Report on Priorities and Planning, the target date for the 280,000 Canadians with new or faster access is March 2019.
Not only are there significant differences between the CRTC (100 per cent access by 2015) and the government (98 per cent access by 2019) with respect to broadband targets, but both targets now pale in comparison with those adopted elsewhere. For example, the CRTC’s U.S. counterpart, the Federal Communications Commission, now defines broadband as 25 megabits per second, far faster than the Canadian target. Indeed, faster targets are the norm with Canada broadband goal presently slower than most other developed countries.
Canada established a national broadband task force in 2001, but nearly 15 years later still suffers from a policy that leaves some Canadians without affordable access. Why has broadband policy been such a failure?
At least part of the answer lies in the fact that the government broadband target has been developed in a manner that virtually guaranteed that Canada would fall short. For much of the past decade, officials developed detailed maps that identified the remaining communities without access and followed up with programs to improve access in those areas. While that marginally improved access rates, the approach resembled an accounting exercise, where the access data and available funds were tallied up and officials unveiled a “reasonable” target based on available budget.
Such an approach was presumably designed to avoid the embarrassment that might arise by failing to meet the broadband targets. Yet the real embarrassment is the failure to set goals that ensures that all Canadians have affordable access. Canada has been home to a range of programs and hopeful announcements (including last week’s spectrum auction results) that never quite reach the intended target with more ambitious goals or regulatory measures largely absent from the Canadian landscape.
New spectrum allocation might help, but more promising is the upcoming CRTC comprehensive review of telecom policy. The review will examine many aspects of telecommunications, but the question of whether universal access should be defined to include broadband offers perhaps the best chance to place Canada’s digital policy on a more stable foundation since it might finally require establishing policies mandating affordable broadband access for all Canadians.