Liberal MP Navdeep Bains (Mississauga--Brampton South) chats with Young Liberals of Canada Vice President Communications-elect Braeden Caley and youth delegates by Michael Ignatieff (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Liberal MP Navdeep Bains (Mississauga--Brampton South) chats with Young Liberals of Canada Vice President Communications-elect Braeden Caley and youth delegates by Michael Ignatieff (CC BY-ND 2.0)


Why Federal Leadership on Universal Broadband is a Need, Not a Want

With one week still remaining in the federal telecommunications regulator’s hearing focused on the state of Internet access in Canada, the process has taken a surprising turn that ultimately cries out for leadership from Navdeep Bains, the Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development.

Jean-Pierre Blair, chair of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), opened the hearing two weeks ago with a warning: even if an ideal speed target could be identified, there was no guarantee of regulatory action. Blais urged participants not to confuse “wants” with “needs”, a framing that suggested the goal of the hearing was to identify the bare minimum Internet service required by Canadians.

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that the remarks attracted immediate headlines that the Commission would not guarantee basic Internet speeds. The CRTC insists that only comments on the public record count, but it is obvious that the commissioners pay close attention to media commentary and social media postings.

Within hours of the first media report, Blais jokingly told one communications law professor that his class might consider analyzing how his remarks were turned into those headlines. In fact, the fixation with press coverage continued later in the week as Blais referenced “editorialists who never show up at our hearings but apparently have very strong views.”

The press and public coverage of the hearing – which unsurprisingly focused on the CRTC’s seeming reluctance to adopt ambitious forward-looking targets for universal Internet access – may have led to an unexpected abrupt shift in tone and policy. Days after the “needs” and “wants” talk, Blais offered a second set of remarks, this time describing the vital importance of Internet access as “self-evident” and characterizing the hearing as “a chance to create together a coherent national broadband strategy.”

The decision to change the focus of the hearing more than a year after submissions began may be unusual, but the CRTC is right. Canada desperately needs a national digital strategy with universal, affordable broadband as its foundation. However, whether the Commission is the right body to lead such a strategy is an entirely different matter.

A strategy focused on universal, affordable access raises two key questions. First, what are the minimum targets for download and upload speeds? Second, who will pay for the creation of universally available networks that guarantee access at whatever target speed?

Some of the major telecommunications companies have been urging the CRTC to adopt a “5 and 1” approach representing 5 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. They claim those speeds are sufficient to allow for the use of many Internet applications including online video and Internet telephony (though the ability for multiple people in a single household to use these services simultaneously is in doubt).

Yet a national broadband strategy must surely go beyond the bare minimum and the applications of today. Multiple users, video-based education programs, tele-health, virtual community meetings, interactive entertainment, 3D printing, and numerous Internet-enabled devices are more than just wants. They are the future of broadband for many Canadians and the reason why a country focused on innovation cannot be content with painfully slow, expensive Internet access.

A realistic target also requires realistic funding. The CRTC has a relatively small pot of money available and it may be limited to shifting dollars from conventional telephone contributions to the Internet. That approach is unlikely to yield the necessary investment to create a true 21st century digital infrastructure.

There is a role to play for Canada’s telecommunications regulator, but it cannot replace a long-overdue Internet infrastructure commitment from the federal government. The Liberal government emphasized infrastructure investment in its 2016 budget, but allocated relatively little to the digital side of the ledger. If anything is self-evident, it is that federal government leadership on broadband funding and policies that encourage greater competition is a need, not a want.


  1. Dawn Hobbs says:

    The problem is that 5/1 is useless for anyone operating a business of any kind in rural Canada. While the urban folks laugh with 50/5 or better, those of us who live in rural Canada are stuck with…..dialup, or maybe a slow WISP. Satellite ISPs have awful latency, so working on CAD, servers or other remote desktops is out of the question. Bell, Telus and Shaw? Forget it – they just don’t bother to provide anything unless it’s close to a major(ish) town.

    We don’t like it – we just don’t have any choice. Where I live I can buy $90/mo 4/1 wireless service that is….barely OK for reading email and light web use. I can’t run my remote servers, or stream webcasts/webinars or use Skype for teleconferencing. The closest Telus, Bell or Shaw get to my location? About 10 km.

    I built my own WISP to solve that – it serves me and someone who supplies a tower location to me. Is that really what it takes to get decent internet in this country? If I can provide 30/5 to myself, surely one of the WISPs can do so for others.

    On top of that, Digital 150 says that I am “well served” with at least 5/1. Not sure where they get that from as there is no ISP who gets that kind of speed here (other than me!).

    The answer is that there is plenty of money – and it’s all in the hands of the major Telecomm and Cable companies. They need to be forced to meet overall density requirements and speed requirements. Without that they will continue to eat the urban cream – where density equals significant profits, and ignore rural Canada, leaving us as second- or third-class citizens.

    At least I have a lovely lake to look at.

  2. and the *WHOLE* CRTC is under review?

    privacy, property and freedom of info. (evolution of)

    quebec seems intent on driving out servers gambling and the rest of the world.
    natives will remember the last TV attempt. (cable)
    bell will fight netflick to the death.

    my own experience says ANYTHING useful will be a victim of predatory capitalism
    (pred vulture adventurism caps HA!)

    lets see what consumers will support, shall we?

  3. Dev Mehta says:

    The only role CRTC should play is to ensure that there is strong competition among Canadian ISP’s.Best way to do this is to open up Canadian telecom market to foreign telecom companies.ISP subscription fees are too high and service to poor.Internet is now an indispensable service for every Canadian.

    I urge the Canadian public to petition Canadian government to force the BIg3 to compete against foreign companies.Canadians need not accept crappy,overpriced Internet access-it is far too important to be left with Big3

    Remember when Verizon tried to enter Canadian market in 2013?