Broadband as a basic service: be careful what you wish for (3)


I’m taking a further shot in this post at the question of the decade: should Ottawa guarantee Internet access to all Canadians?

This question is now drawing a great deal of attention. In April, the CRTC launched a new proceeding to review “basic telecommunications services.” As I wrote previously:

“The most important single question to be addressed in this proceeding is whether the time has come to start treating a broadband connection to the Internet as an essential service to be provided to all our citizens, just as we have done for decades in the provision of basic telephone service.”

As luck would have it, that is exactly the issue the FCC voted to examine on June 18: FCC Takes Steps to Modernize and Reform Lifeline for Broadband.”

Nevertheless, the two agencies see what is at stake in very different terms. These differences are evident in a comparison of the relevant public notices and agency research documents. My reading indicates our American friends are way ahead of us in the assumptions they’ve made about the public interest, as well as in the tools at their disposal to make a success of this epic broadband venture.

In this post and the next I’m therefore going to raise some warning flags about Canada’s prospective treatment of broadband as a basic service. My message: let’s be careful what we wish for.

lifelineCable taps vs social justice

I’ve spilt a lot of ink on this page criticizing Ottawa’s Pollyannaish treatment of broadband policy. In the CRTC’s proceeding on basic service, we again find an important public initiative on Internet policy framed in a way that seems more self-satisfied than concerned. This attitude manifests in two closely related ways. One is the suggestion Canada is doing very well in providing broadband access to the public at large.

These bragging rights are made possible by a second factor: Ottawa’s insistence on measuring the success of broadband in terms of “access” rather than penetration, let alone actual Internet usage. Yet this ingrained habit flies in the face of the core objective of any lifeline or universal service initiative: social justice for the millions of Canadians (and Americans) who are not Internet adopters either because they can’t afford access or have no idea how being online might enrich their lives.

Compare how the two regulators frame the broadband problem in their public announcements. In its Telecom Notice of Consultation CRTC 2015-134 (pdf uploaded here), the CRTC reminds us how well we’re doing, then defines the task before it in two parts: raising speed targets and looking after Canadians in rural areas. Here’s how the section on Broadband Internet access begins (at para 22):

“Virtually all Canadians, regardless of whether they live in urban centres or in rural and remote areas, benefit from having access to Internet services using a variety of technologies, including wireless and satellite technologies. In Canada, the rollout of broadband Internet access has occurred through a combination of market forces, targeted funding, and public-private partnerships at all levels of government.”

In other words, broadband is first and foremost a success story for “virtually all Canadians” – despite the roughly 20% of Canadian adults who continue to shun the connection waiting in their very backyards. This section of the notice then does a mid-course correction, noting that four years earlier (in Telecom Regulatory Policy 2011-291: pdf uploaded here), the Commission found it would not be appropriate to mandate broadband access as a basic service, nor to create a fund to subsidize broadband deployment.

At this point in the current notice, the reader might have expected to see the CRTC strike out in new directions. Instead, it takes refuge in two well-worn ideas: speed targets and the disenfranchisement of rural Canadians. We’re reminded that the 2011 policy established speed targets for 2015 measuring 5 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up – targets I described in several posts (here and here) as hopelessly inadequate even then, as have others more recently, including Michael Geist. (My idea back then was that broadband development proceeds in three distinct stages for policy purposes, the three A’s: access > adoption > activity.)

The FCC, by contrast, launched its current proceeding with a good deal more vision, urgency and compassion. As its media release states:

“…the Commission has concluded it is time for a fundamental, comprehensive restructuring of the program to meet today’s most pressing communications needs: access to broadband.”

In his statement, Chairman Wheeler sums up how he sees the world: “We all agree that we have entered the broadband era…” Wheeler’s assertion is no rhetorical flourish. While he acknowledges the US Lifeline program is in a shambles, he doesn’t use that misfortune as a pretext for inaction. On the contrary, he sees fast, affordable, universal broadband as too important to be left to the bean counters.

He also deserves credit for understanding two other factors: one, the Internet has become an indispensable resource in the everyday lives of end-users – for finding and keeping jobs, helping kids do their homework, helping consumers save money, etc. But there’s a second factor that stands in the way: US Internet access is broken and needs fixing.

Continues in part 4…