Toronto Star: City’s plan for cheap, fast internet still alive, but may be years away

Posted May 6, 2022

Hopes remain alive that the city of Toronto could use its fibre-optic network to help residents get cheaper internet service options — but it would be years away.

Mayor John Tory’s executive committee on Wednesday unanimously endorsed ConnectTO, a plan to boost high-speed connections between city sites, and to see if there is excess broadband capacity that could be put to other uses.

But gone is a recommendation that city council approve creation of a “city-owned high-speed Municipal Broadband Network” working with private internet providers to “help ensure equitable access to broadband internet for residents regardless of their financial means or circumstances.”

City staff suggested removing that language after pushback from executive committee members and major internet service providers Bell Canada and Rogers Communication, including concerns the city would duplicate the firms’ services — even though the plan says the city wouldn’t be an internet provider.

Lawrence Eta, the city’s chief technology officer, told committee members his staff will work with firms, as well as anti-poverty activists who want the city to help make internet access cheaper now, to bring back a business case for use of excess fibre-network capacity “in two to three years.”

City staff at one point envisioned early stages of a program whereby the city would get high-speed fibre lines close to homes and business, and city-contracted private providers would get it “the last mile” to consumers, in early 2022.

On Wednesday, several low-income Torontonians told executive committee members — minus Tory, who has declared a potential conflict of interest due to his ongoing ties to Rogers — that they spend too much on essential internet services.

Councillors on the committee, including Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong, repeatedly asked deputants if they knew about low-cost plans offered by companies to low-income customers who meet certain criteria.

“Should the city be doing this?” Minnan-Wong later wondered of ConnectTO. “We’ve got a lot on our plate … Is the city going to say it can provide something better than the private sector?”

Representatives for two smaller internet providers encouraged the city to keep working on a program that could see them eventually bid against the big carriers.

Sam Andrey, director of policy and research at Toronto Metropolitan University’s leadership lab, said he is optimistic ConnectTO could eventually become reality.

“I am sure (Rogers and Bell) are not fans of this idea, but I think what executive committee approved holds to the vision of potentially increasing competition and access, which should improve competitiveness and therefore prices in the city.”

Bianca Wylie, a public-sector technology advocate, said: “It’s encouraging to see the city stepping up on affordable internet where the (federal) CRTC is failing us.

“Today we saw caution, again, about the city stepping into that fray, just in concept. The real fight for the ConnectTO program — for public investment in it — is yet to come.”

City council will debate the issue next week.

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Article by David Rider for the Toronto Star

 

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