Don’t get too excited about Ontario’s broadband and cellular action plan

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The latest announcement from the province of Ontario is the reason why I’m so concerned about the future of broadband connectivity for our rural, remote, and northern communities. 

The province revealed its “first-ever broadband and cellular action plan,” acknowledging that students, businesses, and families require reliable, affordable high-speed Internet in order to compete on a local and global scale, and access essential government services and health care. 

It is estimated that 12% of Ontario households are unserved or underserved, meaning the other 88% have Internet speeds of at least 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload. The goal is to connect 100% of Ontario’s population to speeds meeting the Canadian standard of 50/10 Mbps. Ontario announced $315 million of provincial funding to go towards connecting up to 220,000 households over the next five years. 

Here’s the frustrating part - most of these funds were previously announced and earmarked, so this announcement isn’t really anything new. More importantly, the target of 50/10 Mbps by 2030 is too low, as it is basically the new dial-up. Today, wealthier urban neighbourhoods enjoy 1 Gbps Internet access, scalable to 10 Gbps tomorrow. 

Ontario’s action plan will actually make the digital divide wider; entrenching systemic inequities. Equitable access to the Internet is a determinant of one's equal access to healthcare, education, government and marketplaces. We need policies that ensure our right to equality is assured. 

My concern is that not only is the government tooting its own horn announcing previously allocated taxpayer money going to telecoms to subsidize them for a job they should be doing anyway, but community leaders and organizations, who should be critical of this announcement, are lauding it.

This is happening because our political representatives and community leaders may not understand the technical and operational nuances of telecom. They’ve also been co-opted by the incumbent telecoms as cheerleaders when project funding is announced; as the incumbent telecoms receive virtually all of the taxpayers’ funds. This has amounted to billions of dollars over the years transferred from taxpayers’ wallets to the capital programs of incumbent telecoms, all of whom are some of the most profitable companies in Canada.

Ironically, the taxpayer subsidies to ILECs to provide “good enough” service in rural areas is actually making the digital divide worse, because it frees up the ILECs to spend more of their own capital only in urban areas, particularly in wealthier neighbourhoods, to provide “great service” where they can make more money on mobile wireless or acquisition of content assets. 

ILECs are free from regulation to pick the broadband winners and losers. Something the governments wouldn’t tolerate with phone, electricity or water service, but routinely live with on broadband. This happens, in part, because the Chair of the CRTC is an ex-Telus exec and his remarks and the commission’s decisions since he came to office reflect a clear bias towards the ILECs. So much so that the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) was forced to intervene and direct the Chair and Commission to be more consumer oriented.

Ministers of ISED and Rural Economic Development federally have largely bought into the 50/10 Mbps target for funding hook, line and sinker, because this is what the ILECs said they could afford to do and all that rural folks need. Consumers had little to no input in establishing this target. Based on this “action plan,” the government of Ontario is also hooked.

Our citizens’ economic vitality and social well-being are at stake. And the bets the provincial and federal governments have been making and continue to make show they are going to go bust or fold.

Campbell Patterson