Toronto Star: City to pull the plug on plan for cheap, fast internet for low-income Torontonians

Posted May 2, 2022

Toronto is poised to pull the plug indefinitely on plans to create a municipal broadband network aimed at ensuring access to cheap, fast internet for low-income Torontonians.

After hearing skepticism last month from members of Mayor John Tory’s executive committee, and amid lobbying of politicians and officials by Canada’s telecom giants, city staff on Tuesday deleted key recommendations from its March 16 update on the “ConnectTO” plan approved in principle by city council early last year.

Gone is advice for council to “endorse the proposed creation of a City-owned high-speed Municipal Broadband Network,” that would, in the long-term, support municipal services, connect city-owned facilities and assets, be accessible to private internet service providers and “help ensure equitable access to broadband internet for residents regardless of their financial means or circumstances.”

Alice Xu, a manager in the city’s technology services unit, told the Star that the “municipal broadband network” language used by city staff created confusion among some councillors on executive committee, which will get the latest ConnectTO update on Wednesday.

“It was interpreted by some that the city was going to take on the role of an (internet service provider) and directly deliver internet services to households or businesses,” rather than get city fibre-optic lines close to neighbourhoods, and co-ordinate with internet service providers (ISPs) that would flow broadband to homes and businesses, Xu said.

The city’s “overall goals” haven’t changed, she said, but staff are focusing now on interconnecting and centralizing the city’s fibre network. When extra broadband capacity is created, she said, staff will report back on how city networks can work with ISPs to “bridge the digital divide and support the economy …”

“We will likely report back to council again, in 2023 or 2024.”

City staff led by Lawrence Eta, Toronto’s chief technology officer, were bullish on the project as recently as last month. Last year, Eta told the Star’s Christine Dobby high-speed internet is widely available but at a cost of $70 to $100 a month.

Leveraging existing city fibre, and adding as needed to get to libraries or community centres where ISPs could build the “last mile” connection to customers, would ease the cost burden on low-income Torontonians, he said.

“We’re trying to ensure that the city has a strong voice and we’re not just leaving it to the private sector to dictate where they’re going to invest and which communities they go and serve,” Eta said, adding, “we wouldn’t need to get into this space if access and affordability wasn’t an issue.”

Last month, executive committee members Coun. Paul Ainslie, Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong and Coun. James Pasternak grilled Eta over possible duplication of private-sector services and potential costs for the city.

Ainslie, chair of the government services committee, said he was struggling to understand “how we’re not duplicating what the private sector seems to be doing very well, and has been mandated in certain areas to deliver, and then it’s up to the consumer whether or not they want to make that connection.”

Anti-poverty agencies and some technology advocates encouraged the city to move forward to reduce growing inequity in tech access and literacy between rich and poor. Programs where private ISPs offer cut-rate plans to low-income residents are eligibility restricted and not promoted or used enough, they said.

City records show Rogers Communications and Bell Canada were among firms that lobbied city officials and politicians, with a focus on executive committee members.

Bell, in a new letter to those members, argues city broadband network would needlessly duplicate its services. It says the city, which issued a tender for ISP partners and failed to get any bids, should “focus on tackling poverty and assistance for low-income citizens through subsidy programs.”

Bell does like one city staff recommendations — to relax restrictions on the number of wireless towers.

Lobbying records show Ainslie was contacted by Rogers, but he told the Star he didn’t read the email, and based his concerns about ConnectTO on his own research.

Tory last year praised ConnectTO but is now staying out of the discussion, his office says, because of a potential conflict of interest — the former Rogers chief executive remains an advisory member of the family trust that controls Rogers.

Rogers did lobby the mayor’s deputy chief of staff in February 2021, records show.

Anti-poverty group ACORN expressed dismay Thursday that city staff are backing away from the creation of a municipal broadband network.

“It’s very frustrating to see this issue we’ve been working on for many years, with the municipal government, all of a sudden gets confused and is threatened,” said Alejandro Gonzalez Rendon, a Downtown ACORN member.

“We don’t want some people to qualify and some people not,” for existing low-cost internet programs, he said. “We want universal access to low-cost internet for all.”

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Article by David Rider for the Toronto Star

 

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