Mark Goldberg


www.mhgoldberg.com





Fact checking rural broadband

With most of the world self-isolating at home due to COVID-19, much is being written about digital connectivity – the haves and have-nots. Indeed, it has been the focus of much of my writing over the past 6 weeks.

Regular followers know that finding solutions for the digital divides – rural access as well as income-correlated adoption – have been personal missions for me for more than a decade.

Both divides, access and adoption, are challenging to overcome. Over the past 5 years, we have learned a lot about driving increased adoption of digital technologies and connectivity among low-income households and there are now a number of programs in place to help with affordability issues. In response to the pandemic, some carriers have waived fees for various vulnerable communities; Rogers and TELUS have developed programs with a number of boards of education to ensure school kids have connected devices to complete their school year.

Over the past week, I have found it to be especially frustrating to read sloppy statements and incomplete reports regarding the state of rural connectivity and what it will take to make broadband service available to all.

Through the weekend, CBC filed a story that deals with the subject matter in such a superficial way as to be unhelpful to our collective understanding of the issues.

The article carries a subtitle saying “CRTC data suggests as few as 40.8 per cent of rural households have access to high-speed broadband.” That was misleading.

In reality, the CRTC says that at at the end of 2018, 90.5% of rural households had access to broadband at speeds higher than 5 Mbps, 84.3% had access to speeds higher than 10 Mbps, and 72.1% had access to speeds of 25 Mbps. The 40.8% figure referred to those in rural communities who already had access to the CRTC’s long term universal service objective of 50 Mbps.

Of the 9.5% of households with no access to even a 5 Mbps service, about three quarters (7.6% of all Canadian households) have access to broadband via a mobile HSPA+ or LTE hub.

The story quotes CIRA’s spokesperson saying “We need to tap into the incredible talent and brilliant people we have in this country who can help string up towers and get those connections out far and wide.”

Really? If it’s that easy, why do all kinds of public interest groups and various agencies say we need billions of dollars and around 10 years for Canada to hit the CRTC’s broadband objective?

The spokesperson also said “we really need to make sure that rural Canadians have access to the same speeds and quality that their urban counterparts do.”

Of course, we would love to see everyone in Canada have access to blistering internet speeds today. But – spoiler alert – “same speeds and quality” for rural and urban internet just isn’t going to happen. Period. Such banal platitudes set unrealistic expectations and as such, these comments are inappropriate coming from Canada’s internet registry.

I feel bad being the bearer of such news. But, as the philosophers Jagger and Richards once wrote, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well, you just might find, you get what you need.”

The CRTC didn’t promise universal access to urban speeds as the basic service objective, because that would have been unattainable. The Commission set its objective to “meet the needs of Canadians so that they can participate in the digital economy and society.” So, can we please take a more grounded look at what should be done to provide all Canadians with access to really high-quality digital connectivity, which is distinctly different from trying to provide everyone in remote and rural Canada with all the options available in our cities.

While those who only have access to 5 Mbps service are justifiably envious of Canadians who have access to faster speeds, one might ask which communities should be our first priorities for funding support? Should we start with those who have no access to a fixed-broadband service at any speed?

For a given amount of money, there are a finite number of homes that can be connected. How should we set the priorities for spending that money? Should it be sprinkled politically, a little bit in every region of the country? With each wave of funding, should we maximize the number of households that are brought online?

Should we start with the households that still have no options other than a mobile hub? Would it be less expensive to provide a direct end-user subsidy to such households? The subsidy could be provided as a taxable item in order to improve the targeting.

In certain areas, we can expect that service upgrades will take place organically, as more spectrum becomes available for fixed wireless, or the economics and technology improves for wired and wireless technologies. That is a good reason why most government broadband subsidy programs have tried to avoid distorting a competitive marketplace.

As I have written over the past few weeks, there are serious issues to be explored as we expand broadband access and adoption. Canadians deserve better, more thorough reporting on the issues.

1 comment to Fact checking rural broadband

  • Andrew Muir

    Hi Mark, interesting discussion here. I note your comment about unrealistic expectations but I guess I would counter that with a couple of observations if I may.

    Firstly I agree rural will not compete with urban in terms of the number of competitive high capacity broadband services being offered. But rural can have high capacity broadband delivered if subsidy is used, and it can have fibre. Not everywhere day 1 but incrementally. In rural Scotland, subsidy is being used to drive fibre out to the remotest island communities who are currently served by DSL at speeds down to next to nothing. They will see the same service as available in the city. Not by different fibre/cable providers admittedly but then again how many pipes do you need? So first observation is that I think it can be done.

    Second observation is that I think you need to start off from a position that it can be done and work from that belief, rather than a position of it can’t be done. We have seen changes in attitude as incumbents have realised they need to move on and catch up with some of that thinking. Incidentally we have rural power cables fed over miles/km of poles and buried to the very remotest dwellings as we consider electricity an essential service – at the time in the 50’s it was considered a crazy non-sensical idea but the political will was there to get it done.
    Just a couple of observations to add in.

    The key steps in all this for me are: 1) Understand the problem (data, mapping, consultations); 2) model the potential scenarios (budgeting, profiling); 3) design the approach (geographies, target areas, performance, commercial models, market approach); 4) procurement (frameworks, call offs, evaluation, reporting, technical and commercial appraisals); 5) implementation – assurance, reporting, manage excess subsidy, mapping, demand stimulation all along – and then back to the start again!

    all the best
    Andrew