Toronto Star: Five reasons Trudeau’s ‘universal’ broadband plan is not, in fact, universal

Posted on November 13, 2020

Earlier this week, the Trudeau government announced an update to its plan to connect all Canadians to high-speed internet. 

Originally included in the 2019 budget, the government has increased the spending pledge to $1.75 billion for its Universal Broadband Fund and moved the timeline up with the goal of reaching 98 per cent of Canadians by 2026.

It’s a noble effort, but advocates who have long been working on improving the access to and quality of the internet in Canada have questions — and concerns — about the best way forward:

This won’t do much for urban low-income Canadians: The idea is that better infrastructure and more choices for providers will bring costs down, but the plan still doesn’t directly address the issue of affordability for individuals, which is what has kept Canadians such as Ottawa resident Ray Noyes offline.

Noyes, 64, survives on CPP disability due to his struggles with bipolar disorder, earning $1,169 a month.

Nearly all of it goes to rent and food expenses so he hasn’t been able to afford home internet. 

Canadian internet costs are among the highest in the world. A 2019 global study by Picodi found that unlimited 100 mbps internet in Canada costs about $80 monthly, the fifth most expensive country in the study.

Acorn Canada, a community union Noyes is a member of, has been running an “Internet-for-All” campaign, advocating for $10 per month high-speed internet for all low-income people.

In a 2019 survey, Acorn found that just 80 per cent of low-income household incomes earning under $30,000 had home internet and 72 per cent of those going without said cost was the main reason. Another 65 per cent of respondents said they’ve sacrificed things such as food and medication to afford internet. 

“Those wires are all running right past me and the only thing that would need to be done would be to allow me to tap into it for a nominal amount,” Noyes said.

Flaws in past initiatives still need to be resolved: Another Acorn member Djenaba Dayle said shortcomings of programs that have already been in place, such as the Connecting Families program, has made them skeptical of how effective these initiatives can be. 

After the CRTC declared internet an essential service in 2016, the Connecting Families program began, offering $10-per-month internet to low-income families earning the highest child tax benefit amount until March 2022. 

However, Acorn found that few families take advantage of the program, either because they don’t know it exists, the speed is too slow, or it’s not offered through their internet provider.

So, of the 220,000 families who can sign up, only about five per cent do.

And then there are seniors and other low-income people without children who aren’t able to benefit.

“I’ve heard these announcements my entire life, and, honestly, it never (seems) to go anywhere, but to another election [or] press conference,” Dayle said. “I have high hopes. I have very little faith.”

Will communities with the greatest need get online the quickest?: The focus of the Universal Broadband Fund is on speed and quality,, which will be a help to rural and First Nations communities who are most affected by slow internet speeds, said Josh Tabish, the corporate communications manager at the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, a not-for-profit organization that manages the .ca domain and operates programs dedicated to improving the quality of internet in Canada.

Tabish said that, as applications for funding roll in, it’s going to be important to prioritize areas with the most need, and to do that by really reviewing internet performance data that comes from these communities, not just taking internet providers’ word for it. 

CIRA has been working with more than 800 rural, remote and Indigenous communities, to map the quality of connectivity in their area, which, Tabish hopes will help communities push their applications forward for funding independently. 

Indigenous people still not at the policy making table: “When announcements such as these get made, we learn along with the rest of the public what’s happening,” said Denise Williams, CEO of the First Nations Technology Council in B.C.

“We’ve been pushing for (an) Indigenous framework for innovation and technology …, because this isn’t just an infrastructure challenge,” Williams said. “Communities need to be determining how they want technology to be integrated into their communities and into their lives.” 

Both Williams and Tabish point out that, because the plan is centralized to the market and ISPs, Indigenous communities have to rely on major corporations to take advantage of this fund and to serve them adequately.

Williams said that, if Indigenous communities could have more access to spectrum or internet networks directly, there’d be more self-determination. Countries, including Mexico and New Zealand, have done this with Indigenous communities, she added.

Telecommunication giants will likely keep their control: The plan is an application-based program, so it’s up to telecommunication companies, such as Telus, Bell, Rogers and Shaw, to seek funding for better infrastructure. Local community organizations are able to apply as well, but Williams predicts major internet service providers will likely take the most advantage. 

“The concern that I have, without a framework in place, is that those funds will flow the same way, through the same mechanisms and the same channels, as they always do,” Williams said. “Then they will determine which projects they’re going to prioritize.

“They’ll determine … which communities will be served.”

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Article by Angelyn Francis for The Star

 

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