Hijacking affordable broadband

“The programs need to be put in place now, not tomorrow. Now.”

That was the broadband affordability message from Bob Murphy, Chair of the Weston Chapter of ACORN Canada, in a deputation to Toronto’s Executive Committee last Wednesday evening.

ACORN members represent those people for whom the term “affordability” is serious. Bob Murphy delivered a heartfelt message. “When I talk about affordability, we bounce that word around at all committees… When I am speaking here about affordability, I’m talking about affordability for low income…Internet is more important now because of COVID… I have to spend money for internet before I spend money for food. This is not just an issue with me; it’s an issue with many Ontario Disability recipients. We have too many low income circumstances that have to prioritize internet before food. Internet before food. Can anybody here, sitting on this long day, imagine yourselves having to decide ‘Shall I pay for Internet or shall I have food and nutrition.'”

That speaker’s deputation resonated with me. How could it not? There is an immediate need. “These programs need to be put in place now, not tomorrow. Now.” But, despite the City calling its project “Affordable Internet Connectivity for All – ConnectTO”, a city owned fibre program fails to serve the level of urgency that was clearly stated.

No matter how much broadband prices fall, there will always be an affordability issue for many vulnerable Canadians. Canadians who have to choose between paying for internet or paying for food.

That is what affordability means.

Unfortunately, in recent weeks, we have seen the term “affordable broadband” hijacked and applied to alternate agendas, such as those ISPs seeking to bypass wholesale broadband access with taxpayers footing the bill for capital investment.

Now, I have no doubt that people want to pay less for their telecommunications services. I want to pay less for my telecommunications services, just as I want to pay less for my kosher meat, my dairy products, my property taxes. I want to pay less for everything. There are some things that I simply can’t afford. There are cuts of meat that I don’t buy unless they are on sale. I drive an 11 year old Hyundai.

But I don’t have to choose between paying for my internet and putting a nutritious meal on the table. I eat mac and cheese when I want to, not because I have to. The overwhelming majority of Canadians can afford their broadband service. I think it is important to differentiate between those who gripe about their monthly bills (it is part of our national birthright) and those who can’t afford a device, let alone the service to connect it online.

At the City of Toronto Executive Committee meeting, Bianca Wylie spoke about what she called applying a product management approach, and what I call systems engineering, defining requirements. She recounted an experience in an earlier job: “I used to be part of a company that built software. And one day when we were working on the software I asked if something was possible. My colleague told me to reorganize my question. They told me to say what I wanted, rather than asking what was possible. This is called requirement writing. Define the things you want then build them.”

Nearly 12 years ago, I wrote “A systems engineering approach to broadband”, saying “Most people define problems in terms of solutions. Many people say that they need nails when what they really need is to hold two pieces of wood together. The difference between defining problems in terms of requirements versus preordaining a solution.”

There are some well intentioned folks who likely believe they are helping with development of an affordable broadband solution, by endorsing a municipal fibre network, but that solution misses a key product requirement. The ACORN members at the meeting were pretty clear. They demanded, not requested, $10 per month broadband, immediately. “These programs need to be put in place now, not tomorrow, now when we have our families that rely on the internet every day.”

ACORN representatives told Toronto that the organization has been working on affordable broadband since 2016. As followers of this blog are aware, many of us have been working on this issue since 2008. Indeed, in partnership with Toronto Community Housing, Rogers launched Connected for Success in 2013, years before ACORN started thinking about the issue. Connected for Success offers residents of Toronto Community Housing 25/5 broadband service with no overage charges for just $10. And it’s been available for some time and is available now. Not tomorrow, but now.

In the years that carriers like Rogers (with Connected for Success) and TELUS (with Internet for Good) have been offering broadband to disadvantaged households, we have learned a lot about the challenges of driving broadband adoption in disadvantaged communities. People don’t just need an affordable connection. They need devices. They need digital literacy training. They need to learn about online safety. They need to build trust. These are issues that need the involvement of social service agencies.

As I wrote a little over a week ago, there were serious flaws in the study used to support Toronto establishing a city owned fibre network. Toronto is no broadband backwater. It is one of the most connected cities in the world. It is simply not true that 40% of Torontonians do not have broadband service that meets the CRTC objective.

Toronto doesn’t need a city-owned fibre network. The city will not be adding any connectivity to any place that doesn’t already have gigabit service available.

Not one.

As currently proposed, ConnectTO is bound to be a billion dollar broadband boondoggle.

But most importantly, the ConnectTO plan fails to meet the most fundamental requirement: the need to provide service now.

Not tomorrow. Now.

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