Broadband as essential and affordable: what the research says

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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.

Networked disinformation: Bell wins against the facts

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Last February 24th, Ottawa City Council voted on a resolution tabled by councillors Jeff Leiper and Diane Deans to support a now pretty well known CRTC ruling. The Commission decided last July to require the incumbent ISPs to provide their smaller competitors with access to their new fibre networks, which are the future of the Internet.

The resolution called for “the city of Ottawa [to] support the CRTC’s decision to require the sharing of fiber-optic networks between large and small competitors.” That position took an implicit stand against the petition submitted by Bell to the federal cabinet last November calling for the government to over-rule the CRTC on sharing fibre networks.

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Fibreoptic connections use extremely fine strands of glass to transmit data across networks. Instead of electrical pulses, they use beams of light to carry information inside each strand, sometimes with several different wavelengths each carrying huge amounts of data (hence the reference to “optical”). Fibreoptic technology has major advantages over the copper infrastructure used by telcos and cablecos. Fibre has far greater bandwidth and can readily achieve speeds in the tens or even 100s of gigabits per second (1 Gbps = 1000 megabits per sec, 50 times faster than a typical home connection). Optical fibre is much sturdier and cheaper to maintain than copper. It can also carry data over much longer distances without the need for powered devices like repeaters. Optical fibre is being introduced in “last-mile” connections between end-users and ISPs as fibre to the premises (FTTP). It’s FTTP technology that’s at the heart of the debate between Bell and proponents of competitive, affordable Internet access.

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bell-denied-2I watched the live stream of the Ottawa debate and was surprised at the extent to which some councillors had swallowed Bell’s party line. The nays voted down the resolution by a wide margin – 17 to 7. I had an op-ed on the subject published by the Ottawa Citizen the day of the vote, as part of a push by OpenMedia to support the CRTC and discredit Bell’s campaign against competition in Internet access: “Ultra-fast broadband is a local issue, Ottawa.” The Ottawa vote stood in sharp contrast to the very similar exercise that took place in Toronto on February 4 – a triumph for the good guys at 28 for and 5 against a resolution supporting the CRTC decision. Continue reading

A pig in a poke no more: my students rate the ISPs

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The carrier hotel at 151 Front St West, Toronto, the meeting point for dozens of ISPs and other network operators

“75% of respondents to PIAC’s survey did not know the speed tier to which they subscribe even though 83% of consumers identified download speed as very important or somewhat important when choosing an ISP for their home.”  –Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), Ottawa, January 2013 – Transparency in Broadband Advertising to Canadian Consumers (pdf)

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Like the great majority of the online population, even 20-something communications studies majors have little or no clue what they’re buying from their ISP. That’s why we talk a lot about ISPs in my classes. They’re the main contact point for most people with the public Internet. They’re also the key to understanding what broadband is, how regulation works (or doesn’t), and how gatekeeping is exercised.

One challenge in helping undergrads understand how the Internet works (not just the technology, but the policy and business perspectives as well) is that there’s no textbook. Good sources have to be cobbled together, and there’s often a trade-off to be made between what’s topical and what’s authoritative. So when I went looking for a more engaging kind of written assignment a few months ago, I figured why not have the students develop the data themselves. Send them out to the field – well, at least as far as the living room – to find out exactly what they’re getting from their current ISP, then see if they could do better from the competition. Continue reading

Broadband as a basic service: be careful what you wish for (4)

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[This post continues from the previous one, comparing the FCC and CRTC approaches to the principle of universality, and finding the CRTC’s approach to broadband puts this principle at risk.]

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For my money, the key lesson we can take from Chairman Wheeler’s FCC lies in the willingness to admit when they’ve got a big problem on their hands. The FCC spends little time reflecting on its successes, compared to worrying about how they will correct market failures and right social injustices. In that spirit, Wheeler’s recent statement on the new Lifeline proceeding gets straight to the main issue: “…nearly 30% of Americans still don’t have broadband at home, and low-income consumers disproportionately lack access.”

Compare that blunt admission to the CRTC’s habit of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. The rosy glow is not confined to decisions; it’s also been a feature of the CRTC’s research documents. Take last year’s Communications Monitoring Report on telecommunications (pdf uploaded here). Turning to the section on the Internet market sector and broadband availability (p.171), the reader is hard-pressed to see that anything is amiss in this parallel universe. Continue reading

Broadband as a basic service: be careful what you wish for (3)

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I’m taking a further shot in this post at the question of the decade: should Ottawa guarantee Internet access to all Canadians?

This question is now drawing a great deal of attention. In April, the CRTC launched a new proceeding to review “basic telecommunications services.” As I wrote previously:

“The most important single question to be addressed in this proceeding is whether the time has come to start treating a broadband connection to the Internet as an essential service to be provided to all our citizens, just as we have done for decades in the provision of basic telephone service.”

As luck would have it, that is exactly the issue the FCC voted to examine on June 18: FCC Takes Steps to Modernize and Reform Lifeline for Broadband.”

Nevertheless, the two agencies see what is at stake in very different terms. These differences are evident in a comparison of the relevant public notices and agency research documents. My reading indicates our American friends are way ahead of us in the assumptions they’ve made about the public interest, as well as in the tools at their disposal to make a success of this epic broadband venture. Continue reading

Rebooting basic telecom services: hope for policy reform?

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The recent Rebooting conference in Ottawa was a terrific experience. Lots of people with lots of good ideas and the opportunity to debate them at length.

cbc_logo_1940_1958Oversimplifying a little, I would divide the conference participants into two general groups. The first and larger of the two was reform-minded, with many calling for serious changes, especially to the CRTC. The second group, while smaller, was just as eloquent in defending what I’d call the status quo. By that I mean maintaining or expanding subsidies for program production; a bigger role for the CBC; and measures explicitly designed to protect broadcasters with a view, among other things, to protecting jobs in the broadcast sector. This perspective tended to cast the socio-cultural objectives of the Broadcasting Act in a favorable light.

My six minutes of fame featured a half dozen reasons as to why there’s an urgent need to reboot the Broadcasting Act, and in particular to redraw the policy goals in section 3 from the ground up.

Why we need reform

1 – The 1991 Act is older than the Web. One simple argument for reform is chronological. The 1991 Act predates the Web by six months: the first publicly available Web page was posted on the Internet in August 1991. Worse still, most of section 3 is based on what became law in 1968 – 47 years ago! The main difference is that the current version is over three times longer and now refers to “programs” and “programming” 31 times. Continue reading

Broadband speeding up, broadcast TV slowing down?

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This morning brought news that the CRTC has launched a national broadband measurement initiative using the SamKnows platform (“The global leaders in broadband measurement“). The announcement comes hard on the heels of Michael Geist’s Tuesday post entitled Missing the Target: Why Does Canada Still Lack a Coherent Broadband Goal? Ironically, after his well taken lament, the Commission suddenly seems ready to answer Michael’s question – though not in the way some of us might like.

“The CRTC is recruiting up to 6,200 Canadians to help measure the Internet services provided by the participating ISPs. Volunteers will receive a device, called a “Whitebox”, that they will connect to their modem or router. The Whitebox will periodically measure broadband performance, testing a number of parameters associated with the broadband Internet connection, including download and upload speeds.”

On this Commission page, the visitor is offered some details, including how to sign up. In a discussion with some other folks today, there was agreement that the Commission is going to have to work hard to attract mainstreamers who have no technical background. To do so, the project team is going to have to take a more didactic approach, and give up self-congratulatory marketing lingo like a “world-class communication system.” Continue reading

Now playing at the CRTC: your precarious future on the Internet (2)

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In this post, I follow up on my comments about the first day of the CRTC’s hearing to review its framework for wholesale services in the telecom industry. Since the most significant sector to be affected is Canada’s residential broadband service, I’m summarizing evidence here that was compiled recently by the Open Technology Institute (OTI) that compares broadband in 24 cities in Europe, East Asia and the US, along with Toronto. This evidence is consistent with findings from other international studies. It shows Toronto lags far behind the broadband leaders in available speeds; in the penetration of fiberoptic platforms; in symmetric connectivity (uplink bandwidth matches downlink bandwidth); and, most seriously from a social policy perspective, in the high prices Torontonians are forced to pay. I take this evidence as a strong argument in favor of maintaining and extending the regulatory regime that ensures open access to networks for smaller, competitive ISPs – including not just legacy platforms like DSL, but also emerging fiber platforms. Unless the CRTC includes these next-generation platforms, Canada will fall even further behind in its long slide into slow and expensive broadband connectivity.

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“We are now ready to take our place as the most technologically advanced nation on the planet.” –Stephen Harper, Digital Canada 150, April 2014

Last month the Open Technology Institute released the third in a series of annual studies of broadband speeds and prices in 24 cities in the US, East Asia and Europe, plus Toronto (originally 22 cities). I wrote about OTI’s first report back in November 2012 (CRTC’s 2nd pro-consumer decree: 4 reasons not to celebrate); and I had comments a year later about the second report (Broadband data for Toronto: more bad news and getting worse). Continue reading