Stuart Freen is a JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School
Should high-speed internet be regulated as a basic service available to all Canadians, even those in remote rural locations? The CRTC grappled with this question over the past two weeks, hearing submissions from stakeholders including the nation’s major ISPs. Proposals to extend coverage nationwide could cost as much as $7 billion over 10 years, according to one estimate from Manitoba carrier MTS.
CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein noted in his opening statements that rural communities have far fewer choices than urban customers when it comes to telecommunications services, and tend to pay much higher premiums. Several major ISPs including Rogers, Shaw and Videotron have opposed mandatory broadband coverage, arguing that market demand will drive expansion in remote areas. Supporters of regulation, however, argue that while it is financially impractical to extend service to rural areas, rural Canadians will become increasingly isolated without access to broadband internet.
Other countries including France, Spain and Finland have already set targets for universal broadband access. Australia, meanwhile, has created an AUD $43 billion National Broadband Network Crown corporation to offer high-speed internet nationwide.
Rural broadband has become an unlikely political issue in recent months, with Industry Minister Tony Clement and Liberal MP Marc Garneau both throwing support behind increased broadband coverage. Garneau compared broadband internet access to the railway and the trans-Canada highway, suggesting that the internet forms an essential link between Canadians.
Following the CRTC hearings, Industry Canada announced increased funding for rural broadband projects. Meanwhile, recent reports suggest that broadband internet services in Canada in general are among the slowest and most expensive in the developed world.