More than just broadband

Although the CRTC has been using the hashtag #TalkBroadband, next week’s “Review of basic telecommunications services” is supposed to cover more than just broadband.

As the CRTC says in the public notice:

Currently, the basic service objective consists of the following:

  • individual line local touch-tone service;
  • capability to connect to the Internet via low-speed data transmission at local rates;
  • access to the long distance network, operator/directory assistance services, enhanced calling features and privacy protection features, emergency services, as well as voice message relay service; and
  • a printed copy of the current local telephone directory upon request.

Of course, much of the media attention will be focused on vague concepts such as declaring broadband as a “right”, presumably by including broadband in the basic service objective. That will raise the question of who pays, and how much will we pay to deliver on an expanded “basic” service obligation. And in a competitive environment, upon which service provider will the obligation fall. Who is the incumbent service provider for broadband?

Over the past year, I have written a number of pieces about this proceeding:

The bulk of these posts have looked at the issue of broadband, but suggesting a different twist. Rather than looking at the basic service in terms of geography, I suggest that we should be considering it from the perspective of individuals.

The CRTC characterizes the issue as: “The basic service objective ensures that Canadians in all regions have access to affordable, high-quality telecommunications services.” It typically has placed the focus on the part that says “in all regions”. For about 10 years, I have argued that there are Canadians in all regions who differ on what can be considered “affordable”.

Whether it is broadband or dial-up, wireline or wireless, voice or data, what you and I consider to be affordable may not be the same, and that is especially true for someone on social assistance. There are hundreds of thousands of urban Canadians who simply cannot afford the going rate for telecom services.

If we are concerned about affordability, why aren’t we looking at urban consumers as well?

That is why I continue to believe that the CRTC needed to be looking at who, not where we have been failing in delivering the basic service objective. And it is why I was so disappointed that the CRTC commissioned study by EKOS Research failed to address the challenges faced by unconnected Canadians in urban centres. In the public notice, the CRTC said it “will ask Canadians to provide their opinions on the telecommunications services they consider necessary to participate meaningfully in the digital economy today and in the future.” It is unclear how the CRTC fulfilled this commitment with Canadians who aren’t already online.

Still, the CRTC has received evidence on the issue of affordability. According to the hearing agenda, on Thursday, April 14, a number of consumer groups, including 2 panels of individuals from ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) will be appearing.

Lifeline service has just been extended in the US to include broadband, there are significant risks. Professor Daniel Lyons, of Boston College Law School, writes that the FCC’s plan “amounts to a $2.25 billion annual bet that giving a little bit of money to millions of low-income households will somehow solve the broadband gap.”

The oral hearing begins next Monday, April 11. It will be streamed on and you can follow me on Twitter, or follow #TalkBroadband.

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