Digital divides: UBB as part of a much bigger broadband mess

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The blogosphere has been abuzz recently over the FCC’s bold, brave outreach initiative, Connect to Compete. Not in Canada, you say? I do say, since there are four good reasons why Canadians haven’t got a snowball’s hope in hell of seeing a program of this nature until at least 2015:

1) Leadership. The FCC has been making headway with a real broadband strategy over the last 18 months, along with a set of network neutrality rules, because the vision comes from the top – the White House. Harper and his cabinet have never cared about world-class retail broadband, because that would put them on the wrong side of the consumer vs business divide.

2) Social policy. The most laudable thing about the FCC’s action is the agency’s deep conviction that the digital divide is a social issue requiring vigorous demand-side policies. C2C is a people policy, not a wires-and-boxes policy based on the kind of supply-side thinking that has led our nation to the bottom of the broadband barrel, if I may mix my containers.

3) Brainpower. An astonishing array of talent has been brought to bear on the US issues. Look at the report prepared by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University for the FCC in 2010. Next Generation Connectivity is a richly detailed study of broadband technology and policy around the world, conducted by a team of economists, legal scholars and others, led by the redoubtable Yochai Benkler. Far from striving to get the best evidence-based research, our regulator (as I’ve noted many times) doesn’t conduct or commission evidence-based research at all.

4) Net neutrality. The FCC has its neutrality rules, the CRTC has ITMPs (pdf’s here and here). You can look at each in several ways, but let’s take a) main goal, and b) level of professionalism. For all that the FCC has been taken to task, and court, over their December 2010 effort, they at least begin with the idea of fostering an open Internet; the CRTC begins with alleged traffic congestion. The CRTC’s ITMP policy fills 23 pdf pages and contains 15 footnotes. The FCC’s Report and Order runs 194 pages and has 500 footnotes, some of which run 500 words apiece (not counting appendices and commissioner statements and dissents). I’m not saying sheer tonnage equals excellence. What I am saying is the CRTC seriously under-analyzed the issues, basing their work on demonstrably false assumptions about bandwidth hogs, congestion and consumer behaviors. As a result, the ITMP framework has been reduced to a shambles: witness Bell’s discontinuance of throttling, Rogers liability for egregious over-use of DPI and the huge revolt over UBB.

The digital divide and wishful thinking

The digital divide ain’t what it used to be. Today, it’s all about broadband: on one side, the hi-speed haves, on the other, the hi-speed have-nots. It used to be about computer ownership, then about being online. Let’s narrow down the issues to two general categories: adoption vs usage, and the defining demographics.

Adoption vs usage. What the Americans have understood, and we haven’t, is that even if you give away computers and broadband, the divide isn’t going to go away. The gear is a necessary but far from sufficient condition for success. Moreover, given the huge structural inequities in North American society in education, income and other measures of status, the upper echelons will always be a few steps ahead – in ownership of emerging technologies, awareness of benefits and risks, and digital skills. We can narrow the divide, but never close it altogether.

In any case, the real problem isn’t computing and Internet technology. It’s helping people learn how to use the technology in ways that are comfortable, meaningful and beneficial to them as individual end-users. It’s skills, not what you own that counts. The biggest challenge, therefore, is public education, and I’d be saying that even if I weren’t in the education business myself.

Demographics. Canada’s other big problem concerns demographics, i.e. the variables that policymakers, politicians and activitists choose to pinpoint in looking for what causes the divide and what outcomes we can expect from the choices they make. There’s no single underlying cause; and the variables stack up in a complicated way. One way to look at the stack is from the end-user perspective (you might say this is the only way to look at it). Thus, the three main reasons cited by respondents in surveys for not being on broadband are: 1) it’s not available, 2) it’s not affordable, and 3) it’s not considered relevant or important by the respondent.

The CRTC and the Tories have figured out a genius way to make these barriers disappear. Ottawa says broadband is now “available” to pretty much everyone in the country, so why worry? Indeed, the very first sentence of this year’s Communications Monitoring Report (Exec Summary) goes like this:

Approximately 98% of Canadian households are located within a 1.5 Mbps broadband footprint, consisting of either landline or mobile (i.e., HSPA+) facilities.

 

Okay, so what about the 23% of Canadian households that aren’t on the Internet at all? Well, that may be a problem – for somebody, but not those crafty regulators or politicians. The only variable that has ever mattered in federal broadband policy is geogaphy. As I’ve pointed out previously, the outgoing CRTC chair is clearly on record as shunning any responsibility for digital literacy. A year ago, in an exchange with Marc Garneau as part of the “Obligation to serve” proceeding, von Finckenstein underlined the problem, then just walked away from it:

“Before I let you [Garneau] go, there is one other question that came up before us, and you haven’t addressed it at all; that it’s not only a question of providing access to the Internet, but it is also providing digital literacy and making sure that people actually use it. Unfortunately, we have about 95 percent, 97 percent access now, but we only have take-up in the seventies. This is really something not for us, but for the government to address. We have heard several representations before us that we should do something. Personally, I don’t see that it’s our job …” (paras 5456-5457).

As for affordability, it is never even mentioned in the Tory government’s late, lamented strategy for a digital economy. What happens when the Deciders decide affordability doesn’t matter? Let’s look at data from Statistics Canada – its Canadian Internet Users Survey (CIUS), fielded in 2010, with results released in two waves in May and October. It tells a grim story about what happens to Canadians who don’t make enough money to participate in the online life.

Statistics Canada CIUS data: 2010 survey, released May 2011

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The chart above indicates that if you live in a household whose collective income puts it in the top income quartile ($87k or more), then that household is almost twice as likely to have an Internet connection as a household in the lowest income quartile. Put that slightly differently: among Canada’s poorest families, barely more than half of all households have access to the Internet. Ottawa has for years buried this unsightly social issue in order to focus on the much more palatable problem of too much geography. The latter means we worry about getting the technology deployed, then whoever is willing and able gets on board. If you’re poor or unaware of the benefits, tough shit. It’s not Ottawa’s problem.

Or maybe it is Ottawa’s problem

Earlier this year, then Industry Minister Clement tweeted famously he wasn’t about to allow the CRTC to go ahead with the Bell-centric UBB policy that emerged from the original proceeding. Much malarkey ensued about whether policy by tweet was a good thing, and whether the government should be interfering with a decision made by an arm’s length agency. I wrote a post at the time entitled Clement, arm’s length and really bad broadband policy. In it I pointed to the political dilemma created by the Commission’s policymaking and the government’s criticisms thereof:

“The Tory move was certainly false populism, since nothing in their entire political record suggests they stand for an open Internet, meaningful consumer choice or a competitive market for communications services. Of course Clement and his pals say they stand for all these things because that’s what right-wing ideologues do.”

Back then the Tories could have it both ways. They rode with the OpenMedia petition and scolded the regulator, but without having to commit themselves to the real consequences of a pro-consumer outcome. Then the heartache got drowned out by an election, Harper got lucky and Tony Clement was replaced by Christian Paradis.

Nobody in here but us UBB chickens

Now the UBB chickens come home to roost. And those chickens are going to put the Tories in a really awkward jam. If the Commission takes the side of consumers, the Tories are stuck having to support something their DNA fundamentally rejects – not to mention rejection by their corporate constituency, which includes the carriers. The delicious irony is that the Commission just might go the consumer route to avoid another brawl with their political masters, and by doing so they risk inciting the carriers to petition Cabinet to do exactly what Harper and Clement said they wouldn’t allow! Booyah!

So far Minister Paradis has had almost nothing committal to say about anything in his vast portfolio. The few clues we do have come to us thanks to OpenMedia’s Steve Anderson, who in a blog post last week reported on an earlier conversation he had with the current minister’s office – not the actual minister, mind you, but advisors standing in for him. Steve hit ’em with both barrels on some of the most sensitive questions of importance to the pro-Internet community.

The overarching sentiment in the minister’s office seems to be that “Canada has a need for more choice and affordable access to the Internet.” All well and good. The problem is how you get there and the trade-offs you make to achieve that policy goal. I may be too cynical but I find it hard to believe that the answer Steve got on UBB is going to commit the Tories to a truly pro-consumer approach:

The government is hoping the CRTC comes up with a reasonable ruling on this matter – a ruling that supports independent ISPs having control over their pricing. Paradis’ adviser indicated they would not be happy with a CRTC decision that does not give indie ISPs pricing autonomy.

In the next breath, the advisors walked this back, saying they’re open to talking about ISP independence, but it’s “not their focus right now.”  And by the way, what happened to no more caps? The incumbents still control 95% of the market (by share) and most of that market is paying through the nose because of data caps. What I found discouraging here was the disconnect in the conversation between data caps and the ITMP framework. As a lead-in to net neutrality and enforcement, Steve characterizes the ITMPs as “some of the world’s strongest Internet openness rules…”

Unlike the FCC’s rules, however, our ITMPs are not about openness; they’re about traffic congestion. And let’s keep in mind that, while technical ITMPs are at least about traffic (never mind their abuse by Rogers), economic ITMPs – especially in the form of data caps – have nothing but negative effects, except of course as a windfall for the incumbents, who actually admit they have nothing to do with transmission costs.

Data caps aren’t merely price-gouging tools invented by the incumbents. They are regulatory tools, sanctioned and promoted by the CRTC to discourage Canadians from using the Internet as a way to help the incumbents manage their traffic congestion problems. Moreover, they have nothing to do with the need for enforcement. They should be killed, period.

By all means, let’s fight back against abusive behavior by the incumbents. But let’s not pretend, even with data caps gone and DPI under control, that the outcome will be an open Internet whose benefits are truly available to all our citizens. That’s a much bigger battle, one which has only just begun.

D.E.

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