NDP digital platform leaves unanswered questions

A federal New Democrat government will ensure that all Canadians have access to high-speed Internet access, according to the party’s election platform.

However the section of the platform outlining its digital strategy doesn’t define what speed residents will get, or how long it will take to ensure the country is covered.

But it does say this won’t be a free ride for operators: “Major Internet carriers” will have to pay for part of the cost of the coverage, it says, but the document doesn’t say how much.

At a hearing last year into the urban-rural broadband gap, many carriers said the federal telecom regulator shouldn’t set any enforceable goals, arguing the private sector is close to covering the country.

The platform, released over the weekend, has only six goals for ensuring the Canada has a robust digital economy.

Many of them are general enough that they raise a number of questions. However, a party spokesman couldn’t be reached for explanations by late Monday.

The party promises to rescind the Conservative government’s 2006 directive to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to “rely on market forces to the maximum extent feasible” to achieve its legislated goals.

The directive urges the commission to use measures “that are efficient and proportionate to their purpose” and interfere “to the minimum extent necessary” with market forces.

But the NDP says it will tell the telecom regulator “to stand up for the public interest, not just the major telecommunications companies.”

The commission has been in hot water since it allowed carriers to impose usage-based billing (UBB) policies on Internet providers who buy wholesale access. After being warned by then-Industry Minister Tony Clement that the Harper government wouldn’t stand for it, the commission has decided to hold another hearing on the practice.

That isn’t enough for the NDP. The platform document says if elected it would prohibit all forms of UBB.

In addition, an NDP government would “end price gouging” – without defining what a proper price schedule is. The commission doesn’t set retail Internet access prices, only the wholesale price it can charge ISPs.

In an earlier ruling, the CRTC has set out rules to enforce Internet neutrality (also called net neutrality), to ensure carriers can’t favour content they own or control over other content over the Internet. The commission has said the traffic management policies of wired and wireless facilities-based carriers have to obey the non-discrimination clause in the Telecommunications Act. However, the NDP says it will enshrine net neutrality rules in law.

UBB has been recognized by the CRTC as an economic network management practice permitted by the commission to ensure heavy Internet users don’t overwhelm networks – as long as the pricing scheme doesn’t discriminate for ISPs buying access. In other words, a carrier can’t have a pricing scheme for itself, and a higher one for ISPs.

UBB – which makes subscribers pay extra for going over an allotted download limit — has slowly been replacing unlimited Internet access plans from major carriers who warn some abusers are eating up much of their Internet capacity, particularly during peak hours.

Carriers argue that unless they can make sure that ISPs also have download limits, subscribers will go to the ISPs and drain the carriers access that way.

For their part ISPs say forcing them to adopt UBB means their rates will be identical to the carriers. Before long, they say, they’ll be out of business.

One possible compromise offered by BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada is a UBB plan that gives ISPs some price flexibility. But that was quickly denounced by an ISP.

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