Hearings on Rural Broadband Commence

by Jordan Richardson on October 28, 2010

The CRTC has begun hearings in Timmins, Ontario, over the future of broadband internet service in rural and remote parts of the nation. The basic thrust of the hearings is whether or not the regulator should consider broadband access a basic service.

The CRTC currently regulates basic phone service because it considers that to be an essential service, so the hearings could result in similar apparatus if the decision is made that broadband is such a service.

Such a decision is not without precedent, as a number of countries have made broadband a “basic right.” Finland is a commonly cited example, with connections of one megabit per second constituting a legal right. 100 megabits is being promised by 2015. Australia is seeing its government spend $43 billion in building a National Broadband Network.

CRTC boss Konrad von Finckenstein stated at the start of the hearings what seems to be apparent to most Canadians: rural and remote customers don’t have much by way of choice for internet providers. Satellite is one of the few options and that can be expensive.

As if on cue, larger internet providers and satellite providers stepped up to the plate with the insistence that CRTC intervention is unnecessary. Improving the existing service and providing more by way of satellite options is, instead, the way to go. Bell Aliant argued this basic line on Tuesday, as did satellite company Barrett Xplore.

Others argue that costs are simply out of hand. MTS Allstream stated on Wednesday that it’s broadband rollout to rural areas would cost a whopping $7 billion over the next decade. That’s not a cost companies will be willing to swallow.

Canada’s telecommunications industry has taken a beating over the last few years, that’s for sure, and this issue is bound to bring more bad feelings to the surface. It seems to be a foregone conclusion that Canadian consumers aren’t exactly enamoured with their telecom choices, especially in rural areas and that they want broadband access, but it’s hard to trust that corporate suggestions hold the answers. On the other hand, it’s also hard to put faith in government solutions to these problems.

So what can the CRTC really decide here? They certainly can mandate that all rural and remote customers have a right to broadband, but what will that mean for the cost issue?

It almost goes without saying that Canada’s large providers will raise prices should they have to go through the humiliation of dragging broadband to the far reaches of the Great White North. The companies have generally greeted any attempt to take broadband to rural areas with a dose of kicking and screaming, with few exceptions, so it’s hard to imagine these hearings producing any meaningful solutions.

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