Big telecom's monopolistic control over the Net is threatening to leave Canada with a last generation Internet. We have fallen behind many European and Asian countries in terms of Internet access, speed and cost, moving Canada from second to tenth place within the 30 OECD countries. Our broadband connection speeds have also fallen below the OECD average, and we rank 27th in terms of cost versus speed.
According to the OECD, for countries to remain internationally competitive, "Governments need to promote competition and give consumers more choices. They should encourage new networks, particularly upgrades to fibre-optic lines." The OECD's report states the obvious but what is Canada doing?
In the 2009 federal budget, the Conservative government pledged to commit $225 million over the next three years for broadband to unserved communities. By contrast, Australia, which has a similar geographic breakdown to Canada, is reportedly committing AU$4.7 billion to a similar initiative. Not only is the Conservatives' commitment relatively weak, it also does little to get Canadians hooked up to next generation networks.
In accordance with the OECD, we need to create real competition in ISP markets, which means creating a plurality of ISP ownership types, including municipal and community/non-profit ISPs. The fiber-to-the-home networks appearing in countries like the Netherlands and Denmark are often developed in partnership with local municipalities or utility companies. Municipalities, utilities and community organizations should be encouraged, and in some cases publicly financed, to enter the Internet service market.
Municipal governments are especially well positioned to inject much-needed ISP competition. University of Toronto professor of Information Studies, Andrew Clement, points out that municipalities "have many critical assets, including significant financial resources, control over rights of way, as well as experience in developing and operating other complex, capital-intensive infrastructures, such as roads, waterworks and transportation systems." In fact, many municipalities own high-speed fiber networks that they can utilize relatively easily for Internet service provision.
Where there's a will
There are workable models for Internet provision within our borders like Fredericton, New Brunswick's municipal/co-op ISP. In 2001, Fredericton's city council created e-Novations, its own fiber carrier. Fredericton later launched the Fred-eZone wireless network offering free connectivity across the city. Fredericton now provides access to their fiber backbone and a city-owned organization handles installation and general services.
In 2007, the Intelligent Community Forum awarded Fredericton, naming them one of the Top Seven Intelligent Communities of 2007. This award is given to "communities or regions with a documented strategy for creating a local prosperity and inclusion using broadband and information technology to attract leading-edge businesses, stimulate job creation, build skills, generate economic growth and improve the delivery of government services."
Another way to increase ISP competition is to mandate that Bell and other network operators provide open access to independent ISPs, making these telecom companies more like utility companies rather than Internet gatekeepers with competing services.
While the CRTC has allowed Bell to limit the ability of independent ISPs like Teksavvy and Acanac to provide access to the open Internet, Bell has been directed by the CRTC to at least provide equal speeds to competitors. Instead of adhering to these directives, Bell is lobbying the federal Cabinet to overturn this equal access ruling. They have also filed a tariff application with the CRTC proposing to introduce Usage Based Billing (UBB) on its wholesale customer accounts.
According to Teksavvy, if Bell's lobbying efforts are successful, it will "inherently all but remove unlimited Internet services in Ontario and Quebec and potentially cause large increases in Internet costs from month to month." The ramifications of this would have Bell and other big telecoms increasingly calling the shots in terms of how much independent ISPs are allowed to offer their customers thereby further strangling those that compete with Bell's own Sympatico service.
In stark contrast to Canada's do-nothing approach, President Barack Obama has put forth a plan that supports the open Internet. The U.S. government is providing public funds for broadband deployment with a stipulation that all infrastructure developed using public dollars must provide open access to independent Internet service providers. Once again, Canada appears to be moving backwards while other countries push forward with an innovation agenda.
Now's the time
With the world economy in a slump, now is the time to mandate Net neutrality and open access, and to replicate municipal ISP models that work in cities and towns across the country. This will create jobs in the short term, while also sustaining social, cultural and economic innovation in the long term. According to a recent report from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation titled "The Need for Speed: The Importance of Next-Generation Broadband Networks:" "deploying next generation broadband networks will have profoundly positive benefits for consumers, businesses, academic institutions and society in general."
The CRTC and Conservative government have for the most part adopted a do-nothing approach. Allowing Bell Canada and others to continue throttling the Internet and limit competition, leaves Canada behind in terms Internet speed, cost and access. Allowing big telecoms to become Internet gatekeepers is bad for free speech, bad for consumer choice and bad for the innovation economy.
While the benefits, necessity and easily replicable models for a new more open and accessible Internet in Canada are clear, Canada lacks what it needs most -- a national plan. A new approach could put Canada on a path to a "New Deal" for broadband -- a path to a better Internet for everyone, for free speech and open innovation. As Bell continues to lobby the government for greater control over the Internet, it is imperative that we keep the pressure on policy makers to protect the interests of Internet users.
Canadians should voice their concern at this week's town halls and urge both the CRTC and parliamentarians to enact policies that ensure an open, fast and accessible Internet. On July 6, the CRTC is holding a hearing on "traffic management." The hearing will help determine whether Bell and other big telecoms can continue to "throttle," and thus increasingly control, Internet traffic. Canadians can tell the CRTC to support an innovation agenda at Save Our Net.
Steve Anderson is the national coordinator for the Campaign for Democratic Media. He is a contributing author of Censored 2008 and Battleground: The Media and has written for The Tyee, Toronto Star, Epoch Times, Common Ground, rabble.ca and Adbusters.
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