#ConnectTO: Pausing for a sober second thought

Please forgive the amount of time that I have been spending looking at a proposal for the City of Toronto to build a municipal broadband network. I do not subscribe to the view that the world revolves around Toronto (how many Torontonians does it take to change a lightbulb?). There are some important issues being discussed concerning the role of government ownership of digital infrastructure that have broader application beyond the greater Toronto area.

As you read in my post last week, on March 30, the Executive Committee of Toronto City Council reviewed an update of plans for ConnectTO, a project that I have criticized considerably over the past year.

Fortunately, members of the Executive Committee shared my concerns and paused for what Councillor Pasternak called a “sober second look”, seeking a more comprehensive business case before allowing ConnectTO to move forward. Consideration of the project has been deferred to the May meeting of the Executive Committee.

While we all agree that internet connectivity is important in the twenty-first century, not every household will choose to subscribe. Councillors recognized that broadband connections are only one part of the equation; some people still need devices.

Through the Connecting Families initiative, as well as research from other countries, we have learned that price is not the only inhibitor for adoption of the internet in disadvantaged communities. It is worth noting that Connecting Families was enhanced yesterday to add higher speed options. Rogers Connected for Success offers a wider range of options starting at $10 per month for 25 Mbps, and Rogers includes unlimited downloads in each of its options.

The Executive Committee asked for more information, passing this motion:

That Executive Committee defer Item EX31.8 to the May 4, 2022 Executive Committee Meeting, to permit the Deputy City Manager, Corporate Services, and the Chief Technology Officer, Technology Services to submit a supplementary report on:

  1. the further questions and issues raised at the Executive Committee meeting on March 30, 2022.
  2. a time frame for developing a ConnectTO Business Plan, which will include:

    a. the short, medium and long term costs of building and maintaining the proposed networks;
    b. the end-user price and download/upload capacity that will be available through the City’s Municipal Broadband Network;
    c. proof of the City’s ability to create better access and pricing for high speed internet than established Internet Service Providers, when the city does not have existing infrastructure or funding;
    d. address how ConnectTO will gain access to apartment buildings that already have contracts with other Internet Service Providers;
    e. the number of Full Time Equivalent (FTE) staff required for the planning, implementation, and on-going operations and management of this project, in addition to the 1000+ existing Technology Services FTEs;
    f. evidence that price is the main factor that challenges the use of internet services in priority neighbourhoods, and not lack of computers, computer literacy, or other fears or concerns about internet use; and
    g. a statement of the metrics for success, including the anticipated number of new internet subscriptions from residents who previously could not afford and/or lacked access to high speed internet.

  3. the justification for creating this new internet infrastructure, given that most buildings already have high speed internet, and affordable high speed internet plans are available to low income families with sufficient download/upload capacity for video streaming for classroom use.
  4. a comparative analysis of short and long term costs, capital and operating, of existing service versus the proposed service; such cost analysis should separate the costs for service to city properties from service to residential communities and should also show the cost differences between using private sector providers for internet service versus City-owned and managed assets.

As I have said before, Toronto is certainly not a broadband backwater. It is one of the world’s most connected cities. Every single one of the buildings that were proposed for Toronto’s initial phase of a municipal broadband network already had high-speed internet available, and 41 of the 42 buildings had more than one facilities-based service provider offering those connections. As such, it will be a challenge for proponents of the municipal network to answer point 3 from the motion, “the justification for creating this new internet infrastructure, given that most buildings already have high speed internet, and affordable high speed internet plans are available to low income families with sufficient download/upload capacity for video streaming for classroom use.”

Those providers offer a range of heavily discounted services – as low as $10 per month – to households that need assistance. The issue of broadband adoption in Toronto isn’t a question of service availability; and, it isn’t a matter of service affordability. As an aside, contrary to what some speakers at the Executive Committee meeting said, the CRTC did not say that the minimum service for broadband connections should be 50 Mbps down, 10 Mbps up with unlimited data. The CRTC’s objective is for all Canadians to have such a service available to them, not necessarily for them to subscribe to such a service. In Toronto, there are no known gaps in meeting this objective.

As such, simply building a municipal network is not going to help get internet to more people in Toronto. Increasing adoption in Toronto cannot be addressed by investing in technology to build a redundant, municipally owned fibre network.

Toronto should focus more on the social service aspects, understanding the factors that inhibit adoption, and dealing with them on a case-by-case basis.

Point 2f of the Executive Committee motion alludes to factors other than price challenging the adoption of internet services in Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods, thanks the availability of affordable internet programs in those areas from Rogers and Bell. These programs also help make computers available at affordable prices.

Although training may be available to help with computer literacy, how do we tackle the fears or concerns about internet use, and help people gain a better appreciation for the opportunities enabled by a home broadband connection? This is a key area of understanding for all level of governments to improve.

Applying less technology and more social research is an area where the city and its academic partners could show real leadership moving forward.

Some technology problems just might be handled better without more technology.

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