Last week, I joined several other speakers at the Internet4All public forum held by ACORN, an advocacy organization that works on behalf of low- and moderate-income families in cities and neighbourhoods across Canada. The event was part of the run up to the CRTC’s review of basic telecoms service. ACORN and its other partners in the Affordable Access Coalition told the commission that broadband Internet access is expensive and out-of-reach not just for people in rural and remote areas – the focus of many of the presenters in the first three days of the Commission’s review – but for people with low incomes in cities across the country as well.

ACORN’s Internet4All Public Forum

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The link between income, affordability and Internet adoption is clear, even if the exact causal links between them are not. Thus, while 80% of households in Canada subscribe to the Internet from home, 2-out-of-5 in the lowest income bracket do not, and one-out-of-every-three Canadians do not have a mobile phone. At the top of the income scale, in contrast, adoption levels are close to universal at over 95% for both. The figure below illustrates the points.

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While there are those who wonder if this is because some people might not want to use the Internet, the strong relationship between income and adoption suggests that this is not a choice but a function of affordability. Moreover, study after study tell us one thing: that the price of broadband Internet and mobile phone services in Canada are high by the measure of all respectable studies of the issue (see, for example, the WallOECD and FCC reports). The high prices these studies document might account for a modest portion of the budget for the “average Canadian”, but for low- and modern-income families they compete with putting food on the table and a roof over their heads.

Such realities also help to describe why, at best, ‘wired broadband internet’ adoption rates in Canada fare only reasonably well compared to other developed countries, but terribly for mobile wireless services. That affordability is clearly an issue is also illustrated by the fact that in Toronto just 20% of households in public housing communities have broadband Internet service. These are the realities that are motivating ACORN members, and why the advocacy group went last week to the CRTC hearings.

While the industry has done little to counter these realities, at least one has taken voluntary steps to help ameliorate the problem for some: Rogers. In 2013, it launched its ‘connected for success’ initiative with the aim of bringing affordable broadband Internet access to 58,000 low income families in Toronto public community housing. Earlier this week, Rogers came to the Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corp. to announce that the program is being extended to 150,000 families in 533 public housing communities in Ontario, New Brunswick and Newfoundland & Labrador for the next two years.

In its expanded “connected for success” initiative, Rogers offers broadband internet with speeds of up to 10 Mbps download and up to 1 Mbps upload, with data caps of 30 GB, for $9.99 per month. As a voluntary effort, this is certainly a step in the right direction.

At the same time, however, announced on the eve of the CRTC’s review of the basic telecoms service it is hard not to see the venture as a fine example of “regulation by raised eyebrow,” where just the threat of regulatory action brings about some gestures toward the desired results.

The people attending ACORN’s internet4all forum also suggested that while Rogers’ focus on non-profit community housing is good, the vast majority of low-income families do not live in social housing but market housing. Who will serve them?

In Ontario alone, 168,000 families were on the waiting list for community housing last year. This is more than Rogers is targeting across all of Central and Eastern Canada! For them, the cheapest option Rogers offers is its newly launched “Internet 5” service, but it offers only half the speed of the public housing option and is three times the price, once the cost of renting the modem is factored in.

Perhaps the biggest drawback is that these services are designed for individuals rather than households with several family members who might be running multiple devices at the same time, as Rogers’ own marketing materials on its website indicate.  It is not just that the speeds are slow but that the data caps for both services — 30 GB for the public housing version, 25 for the latter – are exceedingly low. Cisco, in contrast, estimates the average Canadian household used 56 GB in 2014, and is expected to reach around 180 GB by 2019.

Figure 2: Rogers Internet Service Plans Compared

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And what about the punishing overage charges that come along with those low data caps? On this, many of those attending the internet4all event had a lot to say. Lastly, what happens to those who sign up for “connected for success” when the program meets its expiry date in two years?

Some argue that some access is better than none. More specifically, there are those who assert that when it comes to defining basic Internet service, the aim is to give people basic broadband Internet based on need rather than wants and desires.

We have certainly heard a lot of this kind of thinking already. Telus, in particular, argues that the only change the CRTC should consider is making the current “aspirational target” of 5 Mbps upload speed and 1 Mbps download speed for all Canadians a formal obligation (see here, for example). There are those who emphasize that the 25-30 Mbps upload speed and 3 download speed standards that have been adopted in the US and in 28 EU countries, and apply to all citizens. Telus says humbug.

Telus says that email access, web browsing and e-commerce are sufficient enough for people to participate in the digital economy, dismissing the argument that people use the Internet differently – viewing video and using multiple devices at the same time, for example.

The commission also appeared to strike a similar note when Chairman J. P. Blais kicked off proceedings with the remark that the basic service objective must be firmly grounded in evidence, and that “it is crucial not to confuse ‘wants’ with ‘needs’”. Some chimed in immediately that Blais’ words reflected a “disciplined start”, while the CBC, in contrast, interpreted the remarks to imply that the commission had already trimmed its sails and people ought not to expect much. Already by the end of first day, however, the Commission seemed to soften its tone.

Drawing the lines between basic needs and whatever else people might do with their Internet connections along the lines of what Telus suggests, has a long and hoary history. People have been told that they should be accessing the media at their disposal for more “important” uses. When I expanded on this idea at ACORN’s Internet4All forum, people got up one after another to give rhyme and verse on why such distinctions are not only wrong-headed but objectionable. Why should people and families with low incomes — precisely the ones most likely to “cut the cable cord” to save money —be told that watching TV is beyond the pale?

On this point, I heard much about Netflix and cartoons, and how telling stories, art and culture are essential to who we are as human beings, to our imaginations, and how we express ourselves.

And what about using the Internet to get the news, a point that Chairman Blais also appears to fully grasp. He noted that with the French language newspaper La Presse being available online only now, people have to have an Internet connection to read it. This chimes with the results of a recent Statistics Canada study on how people “get the news”. As the video component of online news grows, it is going to become a lot harder to carve out this bandwidth intensive aspect of online news from the low capacity text based part.

Another person observed that as government departments put more information online they are also putting it online in video form. She pointed to Health Canada videos on palliative care and diabetes to illustrate the point, and to the essential role that these videos play in educating people and raising awareness about both conditions. How to distinguish between such “worthy” forms of high bandwidth intensity video and the frivolous kind we don’t hold aloft?

Another woman spoke about how her hearing impaired partner communicates regularly with her family back home in Australia by video and how doing so is not only crucial to their relationship but to her partner’s mental well-being more generally. Then there was another woman who spoke of coupon cutting online because, well, all the coupons are now online, and so too, by the way, are most of the rental housing advertisements.

A young man came up afterward and spoke to me about working a grueling 70+ hour work week throughout high school because both of his parents were on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), and the income they received was not enough to make ends meet. Despite being in the “gifted class” at Lisgar Collegiate here in Ottawa, with an average over 90%, his role of main family breadwinner meant that he had to drop out, unable to meet the competing demands of doing both. Yet, a few years later he completed an Internet-based high school course, much of it based on instructional videos and video conferencing. He’s now at Algonquin College with hopes to complete his studies at Carleton when finances allow.

Another helped a friend faced with a $190 repair bill for a broken washing machine that she could ill afford. Instead of calling the Maytag repair guy, he turned to YouTube, found a $3 solution, and his friend kept her much needed money for other pressing uses. As a recent MTM study observes, nearly two-thirds of all Canadians used YouTube to learn how to fix or do something in the last year.

Of course we can pile up anecdotes like leaves in autumn but the point is, that even those of us who study these matters full-time don’t have a clue about many of the things that people do with the Internet, for both pleasure and productive purposes. I see little way to effectively distinguish between the two and don’t think that much good will come from trying.

That we don’t know the half of how people use the media comes as no surprise to communication scholars because if the field teaches anything, it teaches that people use communication technologies in unintended ways and that this in turn pushes those technologies along unanticipated paths of development. Any effort to distinguish between “basic” uses that people should have access to as part of an affordable broadband Internet obligation and those they shouldn’t risks running roughshod over these lessons. Worse, it risks substituting the regulator and carriers’ judgments for what people themselves are in the best position to decide.

As I pointed out in my testimony to the Commission the other day, providing people with affordable, universal broadband Internet in the 21st century is a necessity, and it is in line with what we have done historically in Canada in relation to plain old telephone service. It is also in line with what other countries comparable to ours are doing around the world.

To be sure, this is going to cost money, and that means that somebody’s going to have to pay and who ultimately pays will be us — citizens and taxpayers. I do not see a problem with that.

Total federal subsidies for broadband Internet development and affordable prices in Canada are at the very low end of the scale at around $2 per year. This is similar to what people in Bulgaria, Romania and Austria invest, whereas I think we could easily move into the middle of the pack to spend, say, $4.50 to $12 a person per year as they do — that is 40 cents to a buck a month extra on our internet bills — in Sweden, Estonia, the UK, Germany and Finland to subsidize internet development (compared to NZ and Australia at $25 and $163, per person, per year, respectively, for their own national broadband initiatives).

Consider this as well: In Canada, compare the $2 per person per year in total federal subsidies for broadband connectivity to the $33 given to the CBC, by contrast. The point is not to bring the latter down to the former by any stretch of the imagination, but rather to bring broadband subsidies closer to those that we give to the CBC (to say nothing of the myriad of other ‘content subsidies’). In the Internet age, while content may be king, it is connectivity that is probably emperor. Our public funding arrangements should better reflect such priorities.

Ultimately, any steps to draw lines between frivolous wants that we can cast aside and productive uses that can be folded into basic Internet service will likely look, at least in hindsight, like so many similar such efforts in the past: as paternalistic and elitist efforts, and foolish ones at that. The commission should give little credence to such ideas, and indeed should reject them out of hand. Get the structure of the Internet policy framework right, and the rest will likely fall into place as it should.

For these reasons, we need less flinty-eyed, utilitarian outlooks drawn from Victorian England and a more imaginative view of the future, albeit one that is still grounded in what people are already doing with the internet and with plenty of room to grow so that all Canadian citizens can use the Internet as they see fit, both today and tomorrow.


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