It appears as though Big Telecom is mismanaging funds collected explicitly to deliver Internet services to rural and remote communities across Canada. In a letter to telecom giants, the CRTC has expressed concern that the companies will be unable to meet their August 2014 deadline for building new access to nearly 272 rural towns and cities across the country.
At present, Big Telecom have failed to deliver high speed services to nearly 40 per cent of the targeted communities, with little sign they’ll make up the remaining 104 communities in the next week and a half.
This is a big deal: the expansion of service is funded by money collected from everyday Canadians, and put into what the CRTC calls “deferral funds.” Basically, the money is collected from each Canadian telephone and Internet subscriber and put into funds that Big Telecom providers (and only incumbent Big Telecom providers) can use to expand networks to rural areas.
In addition to being a Big Telecom-exclusive pot of money (to the tune of nearly half a billion dollars), this fund carries another major perk: as the CRTC rightly points out, the communities were chosen and approved “...on the basis that they would not be served by a competitor in the near future, possibly causing some competitors to avoid these communities…”
In other words, Big Telecom got handed big money (your money) to serve these communities -- but if they don’t follow through on their word, nobody will step in to deliver services. This would be a serious loss for small towns, villages, and rural areas across the country.
Now, when it comes to deploying high-speed networks in these communities, there are two major components: bring high-speed networks to the community, and then deploying them across the "last mile." Basically, this is the difference between having the network up on nearby telephone poles, and having it actually connect to your house. Without this "last mile" connection residents experience service that’s far slower and unreliable.
Big Telecom’s failure to deliver satisfactory service has prompted a number of different communities to develop their own independent services. These amazing community efforts are exactly the type of thing the CRTC should be actively encouraging through more open models for accessing funds for expansion (but we’ll return to this point in a moment).
For example, as OpenMedia supporter and volunteer Jean-Francois Mezei points out, on the border of Ontario and Quebec, a number of rural communities are too far from the nearest large town (Rigaud, QC) to be served with high-speed Internet access. As a result, a small town cooperative was formed to serve residents with fixed wireless Internet services -- a great example of ordinary people stepping up where Big Telecom providers failed to deliver.
There is no doubting the scale of the challenge when considering deployment of fibre across the diverse terrain of provinces like British Columbia and Northern Ontario. But this should not be an excuse for delayed deployment of services to rural and remote communities, as Big Telecom would like you to believe. Instead, the challenges and realities of these environments should have been built into their planning, especially since the geography of places like British Columbia hasn’t changed significantly in the past 1000 years.
If Big Telecom isn't up for the job then it’s high time we we started looking at alternatives.
Here’s what we’d like to see happen: free the public money used for expanding Internet access (i.e., deferral funds) from Big Telecom's control and open up those funds for small ISPs, community broadband initiatives, and other independent providers working to improve rural access for Canadians. Right now, deferral funds are only available for Big Telecom -- which means small independent providers and other community-based organizations can’t access them -- and this must change.
We can see from the CRTC’s letter that Big Telecom isn’t taking their obligation seriously. Big Telecom promised to deliver desperately-needed services to rural and remote Canadians and they've failed to fulfil that promise in nearly 40 per cent of cases. Enough is enough. As Big Telecom is incapable of meeting their promises, the CRTC should enable independent providers and local communities to use these funds to build the sustainable, quality Internet services they need. If they do not commit to use those funds, the money should be moved back to the CRTC or other body where public tenders would be made for any group that wants to deploy broadband in communities without service, especially non-incumbent providers.
Now, it’s bad enough that Big Telecom has squandered this asset and is not following through on their promise to serve 272 communities across Canada, but it gets worse. As they explain in their letter, one of the responses the CRTC is considering to Big Telecom’s inaction is “...ending broadband rollout after the deadline and rebating amounts to consumers.” In other words, taking the deferral funds back, and giving them back to the public in the form of a rebate or cheque.
We cannot stress enough what a waste of resources this would be. This would effectively kill support for rural and remote broadband development in Canada, and leave the remaining communities unserved by Big Telecom on the wrong side of the digital divide. Tens of thousands of Canadians would be condemned to slow, expensive, and unreliable Internet service, where such service is available at all. And these are just the communities approved by the CRTC for deployment -- this doesn’t include hundreds of other communities who have yet to find their way into the queue for deferral-funded expansion.
The CRTC needs to know that rebates are not going to help bridge the digital divide in this country. What we need are new ideas and projects from organizations outside Big Telecom, and a regulator that recognizes enough is enough! If Big Telecom isn’t willing to pull their weight, then let’s open up the deferral funds and take a more open approach to bridging the digital divide. Take action today by letting the CRTC know it’s time to drop the Big Telecom gatekeepers holding back our digital economy.
With files and comments from OpenMedia’s Access volunteers Jean-Francois Mezei, Ben Klass, and Teresa Murphy.
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