Broadband as essential and affordable: what the research says

cerf-kahn

Internet founders Cerf and Kahn

In most developed countries, broadband Internet connectivity has become a necessary part of life. That claim will come as little surprise to anyone who’s been forced to spend even a few hours without Internet access. But it’s a long way from how you feel when cut off, to defining broadband as an essential service to which all citizens have a legal right.

Much ink has been spilt over the quality, speed and price of broadband in recent years, lots of it right here. These issues keep getting increasingly weighty as broadband keeps getting increasingly essential. The importance of broadband is reflected in its wide-ranging role as the enabling technology responsible for bringing us social media, VoIP, streaming TV shows, cloud computing, multiplayer gaming, software upgrades, e-books, government services, job applications and a great deal more.

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As broadband has become essential to participation in social, cultural and economic activities, its affordability has become an important policy question in many high-income countries. In Canada, the CRTC has historically taken an explicitly hands-off approach by not regulating what we pay for retail broadband. In the spring of 2015, however, the Commission launched a public proceeding to explore whether it’s time to declare broadband an essential service (CRTC 2015-134). As part of its deliberations, the CRTC decided to look at the affordability of broadband access for Canadians with low incomes. (I participated in this proceeding as a consultant to OpenMedia, a consumer advocacy organization based in Vancouver. A final CRTC decision is probably several months away.)

Our study for the CRTC on affordability in communications services was completed in the spring of 2016

Late last year, the CRTC signaled its interest in research on the concept of affordability – not just pricing but the more complex concept of ability and willingness to pay an ISP for service in a given broadband market. Last January, with the goal of collecting more information on this topic, the Commission asked my colleagues at Ryerson University, Reza Rajabiun and Catherine Middleton, as well as yours truly, to prepare an independent review of research on affordability in the communications industries. We were asked in particular to identify empirical thresholds for measuring the affordability of essential communications services in Canada, with an emphasis on broadband because of its central role as an enabling technology.

One of our key findings was that access to essential broadband services is not affordable for households with incomes below $25,000 per year. We based this calculation on the standard income threshold used by the UN Broadband Commission for defining the affordability of communications services. In the course of the proceeding noted above, some consumer advocacy organizations recommended that the CRTC adopt this measure for purposes of its policymaking framework.

Our final report is in the public domain, but hasn’t been officially released by the Commission. As provided in our agreement with the CRTC, we’re therefore making the report available for those interested in looking at what academic, industry and government researchers have written in the last several years about the affordability of broadband services in a wide range of developed and developing countries. The full pdf is available here.

D.E.