Is there a better approach to affordable telecom service?

It was pretty gratifying to read yesterday’s announcement of the launch of what is being called “Connecting Families 2.0”, effectively an upgraded version of the basic low-income broadband service launched in 2018 by telecommunications service providers across the country, expanding the program to low-income seniors and significantly increasing the speeds to provide a 50 Mbps down / 10 Mbps up for just $20 to qualifying households. The original program will continue to be an option, offering 10/1 service for just $10.

Connecting Families 2.0 is introducing significantly faster speeds and increasing the data usage amount. At 50/10 megabits per second (Mbps), the download and upload speeds will be five and ten times faster respectively than Connecting Families 1.0, with 200 GB of data usage for $20 a month. This new phase will also broaden eligibility from families receiving the maximum Canada Child Benefit (CCB) to include low-income seniors. The previous Internet plan offering under Connecting Families 1.0 will also remain available. Access Communications, Bell Canada, Cogeco, CSUR, Hay Communications, Mornington, Novus, Rogers, SaskTel, Tbaytel, TELUS, Vidéotron and Westman Communications are all participating in offering improved Internet quality, coverage and price to eligible Canadians.

Some service providers have even more options available, such as Rogers portfolio of Connected for Success services, with 25 Mbps for $10; 50 Mbps for $15; 75 Mbps for $25 and 150 Mbps for $35, all of which offer unlimited usage. Rogers Connected for Success was launched in 2016, as was TELUS Internet for Good, and have been models for the national roll-out by service providers.

As long time readers know, I take a certain amount of pride in talking about Connecting Families and its kin.

Still, I wonder if there is another approach that we should be exploring to ensure affordable mobile services for Canada’s most vulnerable populations? Can the government do a better job on the issue of telecom service affordability?

While the US has specific programs such as Lifeline and the Emergency Broadband Benefit that provide targeted subsidies for communications services from common funds, Canadian programs are currently funded completely by participating service providers and on a completely voluntary basis. The FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit, rolled out during the early days of the pandemic, is being replaced by a permanent program known as the Affordable Connectivity Benefit funded by the US Government’s infrastructure bill.

Contrast the direct government subsidy in the US with Canada’s Connecting Families, which coordinates the offer of “low-cost Internet service packages from Internet service providers that voluntarily participated without government subsidy.”

And what about mobile services?

In its recent Review of mobile wireless services, the CRTC set specific characteristics for a “low-cost” mobile plan, but the Commission did not tie it to a means test (such as limiting the plans to members of lower income households), and it did not attach a funding mechanism, whether from industry revenues or the federal treasury. While the CRTC said “an important issue raised in this proceeding is whether lower-income households and other Canadians, seniors notably, are being priced out of the market”, it did not restrict its low-cost plan to these groups.

Specifically, these plans are expected to

  • be offered at a monthly rate not exceeding $35;
  • allow customers to bring their own device; and
  • include
    • unlimited Canada-wide incoming and outgoing calls and SMS messages,
    • the ability to send and receive MMS messages, and
    • a minimum of 3 GB of data per month.

This approach may create aggressively priced options based on the marketplace in the spring of 2021, but how will these specifications be viewed in 2 years time?

Do we actually know if the particulars of this low cost plan actually addresses the question of “whether lower-income households and other Canadians, seniors notably, are being priced out of the market”?

Doesn’t it seem somewhat patronizing for a central body to arbitrarily determine that this single set of characteristics will suit the needs of everyone in the market for a low-cost plan? How does this plan help a low-income Canadian who needs more than 3 GB of data per month?

Should Canada consider creating programs that provides a portable voucher to targeted groups to enable the consumer to get a discount off of whatever plan they might choose?

Are there structural problems between agencies and departments (ISED, CRTC, Social Services, Finance, Federal-Provincial, etc.) that inhibit the development of a more holistic approach? Can the validation systems created for Connecting Families be repurposed or reused for a directed funding program?

Is there a better approach to affordable telecom service for vulnerable Canadians?

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