How community broadband can deliver faster, cheaper Internet for all Canadians

Unreliable service. Slow speeds. Appalling customer mistreatment. And some of the highest prices in the industrialized world. It's no wonder Canadians are fed up with the stranglehold that a handful of giant conglomerates exert over our telecom market.

With so little competition, Big Telecom has long been able to keep prices high without fear of customers jumping ship to a more affordable alternative. But that could be about to change. A landmark ruling from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has thrown the door open for communities across Canada to take their digital future into their own hands.

Last December, in one of the most significant decisions in its 40-year history, the CRTC ruled that high-speed, reliable Internet is a basic service for all Canadians, no matter where they live in the country. The Commission also established a $750-million fund to help municipalities, ISPs, community access programs, and non-profit service providers to deliver these services to Canadians.

To qualify for these new funds, projects must receive financial support from a government entity -- whether provincial, federal, municipal, or First Nations. This presents local governments large and small, rural and urban, with a fantastic opportunity to bring all their residents up to speed with next-generation fibre Internet services that are both reliable and affordable.

What's even more encouraging is that there are already a number of examples of forward-looking Canadian municipalities which have succeeded in doing precisely that -- including Coquitlam, B.C., Olds, Alberta, Stratford, Ontario, and the Eastern Ontario region. And there's nothing stopping others right across the country from doing the same.

For municipalities, the benefits are immense. For starters, community broadband is one of the best ways to close the digital divide in terms of both affordability and availability -- for example, by ensuring rural residents can access state-of-the-art fibre networks.

Secondly, investing directly in Internet infrastructure ensures municipalities have the flexibility to decide whether to sell services right to local residents, or whether to rent out the new networks to other companies or community organizations.

Thirdly, the decision makes financial sense: municipal investment can unlock additional funds from the CRTC -- and given that the networks built with these funds generate revenues, the initial investment pays for itself within a relatively tight timeframe. In Olds, Alberta, the profits from the municipal Internet service, O-Net, are projected to completely pay off the community's loans from the government within 10 years. And, of course, this means that revenues generated from telecom services flow back into the community, instead of to distant Big Telecom head offices.

Last but not least, the social and economic benefits from ensuring local residents can access affordable, high-speed Internet are tremendous -- acting as a magnet for inward investment, ensuring that far-flung regions can stay connected, and making it possible for low-income residents to get online.

If community broadband is a win-win for municipalities, it also presents exciting opportunities for independent ISPs, the smaller providers that Canada needs to increase competition, improve consumer choice, and bring down prices.

For example, indie ISPs interested in building new networks -- or extending existing ones -- can team up on a revenue-sharing agreement with a local municipality to sell services to local residents. Whereas for service-based indie ISPs, community broadband results in networks that are lightning-fast and aren't owned by a company that has a competitive interest in disadvantaging the indie provider. Either way, residents benefit from ensuring a wider range of providers in the market to meet the unique needs of communities across Canada.

For far too long, Canadians have fallen behind when it comes to Internet access. But by embracing community broadband, we can finally address these long-standing problems and ensure faster, cheaper Internet for all Canadians.

That's why we recently launched a new platform detailing the many advantages of community broadband, showcasing Canadian success stories, and ultimately enabling local residents to tell their elected representatives that it's time to step up and build reliable, world-class Internet infrastructure.

Check it out at Community-Broadband.ca and keep in touch at OpenMedia.org and on our Facebook and Twitter feeds for the latest.

David Christopher is communications manager for OpenMedia, which works to keep the Internet open, affordable, and surveillance-free.

Photo: Sean MacEntee/flickr

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