Rural groups demand action on broadband

The frustration of northern Ontario residents who put up with the pokey Internet speeds has come out at a telecommunications regulatory hearing

Doug Orth, of the Timiskiming Regional Working Group on Broadband Infrastructure, told the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) on Wednesday that communities are dismayed to learn many phone companies don’t believe high speed access should be among the mandated basic services they have to provide outlying areas.

“Are we really saying that consumers in rural or remote areas shouldn’t have a access to the high speed Internet that the majority of Canadians enjoy because we would create funding issues, and the service providers won’t be able to generate double-digit increases in operating income each quarter?” he asked.

“What do we say to the consumer who has limited access to educational opportunities? What do we say to the farmers who are attempting to run their businesses and are stiffed by dialup Internet? What do we say to communities in depressed areas who are attempting to attract new residents, investment or innovative companies but are put at a huge technological disadvantage?”

“People in rural and remote areas should not be penalized because they were born and raised in some of the most beautiful and productive parts of the country,” he said.

His group, representing a number of businesses, education instituions and service providers, called on the commission to set an access target of at least 10 Mbps by 2016. It would be paid for in part by expanding the existing local subsidy for rural providers.

The CRTC is in Timmins, Ont., for the first week of a hearing into possibly updating the basic service and obligation to serve requirements incumbent phone companies in unregulated rural areas have to meet.
(For more on Wednesday’s testimony, click here)

The commission has suggested raising the obligatory Internet service phone companies in outlying areas have to provide to broadband from low-speed dialup to meet the high speed access cities are getting.

However, a number of carriers have told the commission it should let them bring broadband to rural areas as it becomes affordable.

Also on Wednesday, a non-profit group called NeoNet (the Northeastern Ontario Communications Network), which works with providers and government to spread information and communications services across the region, called on Ottawa to set the basic service broadband access speed at a minimum 10 Mbps

NeoNet includes 60 communities as far north as James Bay with a population totaling 121,000, many of them near Hwy. 11. Over 40 of those communities have access to broadband at 1.5 Mpbs.

However, said David McGirr, NeoNet’s director of operations, 1.5 Mbps “is no longer acceptable.”

Working together, the public and private sectors do good work in spreading broadband, he said, “but the federal government must set a new standard and provide the necessary tools through their funding programs.”

Finland, he noted, has a goal of giving every community access to 100 Mbps service by 2017.

Wilfred Haas, director of economic development for the town of Kirkland Lake (pop. 8,500) complained that the local phone provider cut the high speed access of an entrepreneur who moved to the town, although broadband was maintained across the street.

“This is clearly a case of where the telco was following the letter of the law (of the required obligation to serve customers in its area) and not the intent,” Haas said.

How can rural areas attract young professionals or retain children when the broadband they take for granted is priced out of range, he also asked.

“The telcos will tell us the market will decide what happens. I agree. But give the subsidies they enjoy, the monopolies et cetera, it behooves the telcos to use a bit of imaginative mixing of pricing and services to help create that [broadband] market.”

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