Northern Canada map

The federal telecom regulator is wasting a lot of time on finding ways to close the digital divide between urban and rural Canadians, say senior officials of two of the country’s biggest carriers.

“What I found problematic was the lament for an absence of a broadband strategy, perceived lack of leadership from the federal government,” Mirco Bibic, Bell Canada’s chief legal and regulatory officer, told the Canadian Telecom Summit in Toronto on Tuesday.

“We’re confusing several issues where instead we should get down to business and focus on broadband,” — where is the problem, what should consumers pay. “It’s the CRTC and they should focus on their mandate in the Telecom Act and stick to their knitting.”

He complained that at its recent hearing on whether to extend the basic telecom requirement all incumbent phone companies have to offer commission chair Jean-Pierre Blais spoke of the need for a federal strategy on access and minimum broadband speeds. He also signalled the commission is about to add broadband access to the basic telecom service because it is vital to Canadians.

But Bibic wondered about the effort to create what he called “this mystical plan” is it a digital plan. “To me the first plank of a strategy ought to be encourage those who are building networks to build them, or at least don’t discourage them. Have them overlay where they don’t have high speeds. Do that and it will reduce the geographic scope of the network. Then you make the problem bite-size.”

The CRTC already has set an aspirational goal of giving all Canadians access to a minimum 5 Mbps Internet access, and Ottawa already has a fund to support provider who want to extend coverage to remote communities, he said.

However, some areas of the country, mainly in the north, still can’t get that speed or if they can object to how much it costs. Phone companies worry that the CRTC will impose a minimum speed that in some areas will be uneconomic to attain.

Bibic found support from Ted Woodhead, senior vice-president of regulatory affairs at Telus.

“In terms of broadband where there are gaps in availability that’s where the focus should be,” he said. “Largely availability but for a small percentage of the population isn’t an issue and it will be solved by market forces, by the industry without regulation … Where we should. focus is on (Internet) adoption in areas where availability isn’t a problem.”  Some 17 per cent of households still don’t subscribe to Internet, he pointed out. It isn’t clear if the reasons are affordability, literacy, education or indifference. That should be the focus of governments and the commission, he said.

As for funding remote access, there are existing federal, provincial and municipal programs that can be tapped rather than tax carriers. “What you needs is a storefront that co-ordinates where does all this money fit together, and then you get your biggest bang for the buck.”

They were appearing on the conference’s annual regulatory blockbuster panel, which as always was fiesty.

John Lawson, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) said reaching the last four per cent of Canadians who don’t have access to broadband is a bigger problem than the telcos acknowledge. The service will needs to be subsidized, he said. “It’s not getting there, or at the speeds people need.” While some argue broadband delivered by satellite or fixed wireless is the solution, he pointed out that at the CRTC hearing residents from the Northwest Territories said otherwise.

That lead to a debate among panellists about whether rural residents want too much, particularly equality in service with urban areas. “At certain paints of the hearing it was like unicorns and fairy dust,” complained Woodhead, with presenters saying ‘I need synchronous 1 GB up and down’ … “That just fantastical. That’s not going to happen” in an outlying area.

“Everybody’s afraid to say that what we have in the (CRTC) aspirational target was met and in most places parts of the country exceed.” He insisted the debate should be about affordability.

Bram Abramson, chief regulatory officer of Internet provider TekSavvy Solutions said government and regulators we ensure that wherever Canadians live they can buy access reasonable rates.

David Watt, Rogers Communications’ senior vice-president of regulatory affairs suggested people have to be patient. Low-earth satellites that will offer more affordable broadband to the north and fixed wireless are the solutions, he said. “Think futuristically.”

The conference ends today.



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