Toward universal broadband connectivity

How do we encourage universal broadband connectivity?

In Canada, government funding programs have focused on stimulating access to broadband. Canada’s regulator has been tracking its objective for every household in Canada to have the ability to subscribe to a broadband connection with 50 Mbps down, 10 Mbps up and unlimited download by the year 2031.

In my post a few weeks ago (“Digital inclusion”), I wrote that it is one thing to have broadband available at every doorstep in Canada, it is something very different to get people to actually subscribe. Last week, I noted some of the research that is helping to understand the non-financial factors that are inhibiting broadband adoption.

It is worth highlighting a recent paper from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), “Enabling Equity: Why Universal Broadband Access Rates Matter”.

High rates of broadband adoption benefit all of society, yet those who stand to benefit the most are also least likely to be online. Pushing hard for near-universal connectivity is crucial if we want technology to help bridge, rather than widen, existing divides.

The key takeaways in the report resemble themes common on these pages:

  • High broadband connectivity rates are positively linked to factors such as GDP growth and stability. They enable jobs, promote resiliency in the face of disasters, and support the massive and growing digital economy.
  • Huge online marketplaces of every stripe are subject to network effects: They become more valuable to every user the more users there are. For all these reasons, increasing connectivity rates is broadly beneficial.
  • Broadband enables cheaper, more convenient access to critical resources such as health care and government programs, so people with the fewest resources are often the ones who stand to benefit the most from being connected.
  • From every angle, getting offline groups onlineā€”and aiming for as close to universal connectivity rates as possibleā€”should be a policy priority.
  • Doing so requires both completing deployment and increasing adoption rates.

It is notable that broadband subsidy programs in the United States are funded by the US Government, not by the carriers. A White House press release in February estimated that as many as 40% of US households could qualify for subsidies. “Over 16 million households now saving $500 million per month, thanks to the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP)”.

Such a broad program of subsidies would not be sustainable if funded by the carriers themselves.

The ITIF report’s list of key takeaways concludes with a call for Congress and the administration to “sustain funding for subsidy programs such as the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), build economic impact analyses into them, and survey households that remain offline.”

ITIF recognizes that it will take more than low cost broadband to get every household online.

Canada’s communications industry has stepped in to provide the social services support for disadvantaged households where other jurisdictions rely on government funding. It is notable that NorthwestTel recently filed a proposal with the CRTC to offer deeply discounted broadband services to disadvantaged households.

Targeted offers of lower rates aren’t enough to drive universal broadband connectivity. But, these programs are an important part of the solution.

How do we develop a more holistic approach to connect the unconnected?

As we near completion of the job of bringing a broadband pipe to every household, what will encourage everyone to drink from that fountain?

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