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Why is Universal Internet Access Missing from the 2015 Election Campaign?

Appeared in the Toronto Star on September 28, 2015 as Make Universal, Affordable Broadband an Election Issue

The long election campaign of 2015 has featured a myriad of daily policy announcements as the three largest political parties vie for attention and votes. From targeted tax cuts to new spending promises, political leaders have focused on education, child care, defence, the environment and more. Yet thus far largely missing from the campaign has been the most fundamental digital issue – universal, affordable broadband Internet access.

The Conservatives pointed to their spending on broadband in early August when few were paying much attention, but that policy has done little to stem Canada’s steady slide in the global broadband rankings which indicate that Canadian Internet services are middling at best when compared to other developed countries. The opposition parties have said even less, failing to take advantage of consumer frustration by unveiling innovative policies that might address the issue.

Successive Liberal and Conservative governments have tried to address the lack of universal, affordable broadband services through targeted spending programs in rural communities that lack access. Those programs have provided some modest benefits, but have failed to ensure affordable access for all.

In fact, Canada’s goals for broadband access remain a confusing mix of policy pronouncement and regulator targets. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission 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 this year. Meanwhile, the government’s target will take many more years to complete (the target is 280,000 Canadians with new or faster access by March 2019) and it does not envision universal access.

Meanwhile, independent data leaves little doubt about the relative state of the Canadian broadband services. Last week, the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, jointly created by two United Nations agencies, issued its 2015 state of broadband report. Canada ranked 16th in the world in broadband subscriptions per capita and 47th for wireless broadband subscriptions. Further, Canadians ranked below the United Kingdom, Japan, and the U.S. in percentage of Internet users, with 13 per cent still not using the Internet.

Recent data released by the OECD tells a similar tale, where Canada ranked 26th in wireless broadband subscriptions, well below the OECD average. Moreover, it has fallen outside the top 10 for fixed broadband subscriptions.

Given the state of Canadian broadband, there is a desperate need for new thinking on affordable broadband access that goes beyond funding announcements that can take years to implement.

First, the political parties should be asked where they stand on the question of whether universal access should be expanded to include broadband access. A broader definition that goes beyond telephone service would open the door to new regulatory possibilities and programs to enhance access in underserved communities.

On the policy front, there is no shortage of solutions to address the Canadian broadband digital divide. The federal government could work with municipalities to support local broadband networks or the installation of fibre connections available to any provider when annual construction projects open up roads or municipal transportation systems are upgraded. It could remove all foreign investment restrictions so that larger global players might reconsider the Canadian market or examine how the mobile virtual operators would inject new competition into the wireless broadband market.

Moreover, the parties could acknowledge that Internet access is about more than just ensuring affordable connectivity in every community in the country.  Even in urban communities with access, there are still many households that find access – and the necessary computing equipment – out of their economic reach.  Focusing on adoption rates alongside access is essential to bringing the remaining 13 per cent of Canadians online.

Many of those 13 per cent surely plan to vote in the October election. The party that makes access a priority for all Canadians may find that there are political benefits in addition to the economic, cultural, and educational advantages that come with universal access.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can be reached at or online at