Given that Canadian consumers pay some of the highest fees among peer countries for Internet and wireless access, the federal government has increasingly emphasized the need to address Internet affordability. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has told the House of Commons that “Canadians pay enough for their Internet” and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains echoed the same concerns in a speech last year, noting that high costs create a digital divide that represents a barrier to continued prosperity for Canadians.
The Internet access cost concerns seems likely to emerge as a key issue in response to the Bell coalition website blocking plan. While some have tried to deflect the cost concern by pointing to the purported anti-piracy benefits of blocking (a claim that is subject to considerable dispute in the CRTC submissions), the clear position of the majority of Canadian providers – whether independent ISPs, cable companies, or satellite-based providers – is that the costs associated with blocking are likely to lead to increased consumer costs, reduced competition, and risks to extending broadband services to under-served areas.
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The Bell website blocking coalition includes several Internet providers, but there are no smaller, independent ISPs. The absence of smaller ISPs that are essential to the government’s aspiration for greater Internet access competition is unsurprising given the costs associated with site blocking that can run into the millions of dollars with significant investments in blocking technologies and services, employee time to implement blocking mandates, and associated service issues. A mandated blocking system applied to all ISPs in Canada would have an uneven impact: larger ISPs will face new costs but may find it easier to integrate into existing systems (some already block child pornography images), whereas hundreds of smaller ISPs would face significant new costs that would affect their marketplace competitiveness. In fact, larger ISPs might ultimately benefit from higher fees passed along to subscribers and reduced competition.
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The release of today’s federal budget is expected to include a significant emphasis on innovation, with the government revealing how it plans to spend (or re-allocate) hundreds of millions of dollars that is intended to support innovation. Canada’s dismal innovation record needs attention, but spending our way to a more innovative economy is unlikely to yield the desired results. While Navdeep Bains, the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister, has talked for months about the importance of innovation, Toronto Star columnist Paul Wells today delivers a cutting but accurate assessment of those efforts:
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Canadian Heritage Minister Melanie Joly hosted a public meeting in Montreal last week as part of her consultation on Canadian content in the digital world. The media reports from the event included a focus on comments from musician Patrick Watson, who is quoted as saying that no one would be on the Internet if there were no movies, television or music. Reports indicate that the comment generated support in the room and from Joly. In fact, hours later, Joly tweeted out “thoughtful words from @patrickwatson ‘without culture, nobody would be on the Internet'”.
If that really represents Minister Joly’s worldview on the Internet, there should be little doubt that an Internet tax will play a key role in her future plans. Claims that no one would be on the Internet without culture is demonstrably false, but it is consistent with the argument that Internet service providers and Internet companies owe their revenues to the cultural content accessed by subscribers and they should therefore be required to contribute to the system much like broadcasters and broadcast distributors.
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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.
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