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A sign on the main street in downtown Olds, Alta., advertises "rural high-speed" Internet (Chris Bolin Photography Inc. For The Globe and Mail)
A sign on the main street in downtown Olds, Alta., advertises "rural high-speed" Internet (Chris Bolin Photography Inc. For The Globe and Mail)

Northern high-speed Internet focus of hearings Add to ...

A CRTC hearing investigating the future of high-speed Internet in Canada's northern, rural and remote communities began on Tuesday despite fog that delayed flights, caused lost luggage and had several presenters and commissioners showing up in jeans.

The difficulties in getting to Timmins, Ont. - where the hearings are being held for three days before they reconvene at the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission's headquarters in Gatineau, Que. - underscored the challenges facing the regulator as it investigates how to better connect rural Canadians to the outside world.

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"The burning question now becomes whether the commission has a role to play in the provision of broadband Internet services where it is currently not available," said CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein as he opened the proceedings.

At issue is whether the CRTC should regulate the expansion of high-speed Internet and declare it a basic service, similar to home phone and slower dial-up Internet.

Governments around the world, such as in Australia and the United States, set targets to cover 100 per cent of their populations and invest tens of billions of dollars to roll out high-speed networks.

The CRTC, and the federal government, face the challenge of doing the same in a country where, in many places, a relatively small population is scattered over great distances.

"We know that this commission is responding to the growing international call for access to broadband being recognized as a right, as critical infrastructure," John Maduri, chief executive officer of Canada's largest rural Internet provider, Barrette Xplore Inc., told the commission.

Advocates for expanded service and interest groups argue that without fast, affordable connections to the Internet, rural economies will falter, poverty will increase, and citizens living in remote areas will fall farther behind and become more isolated.

But service providers argue that broadband Internet already reaches about 90 per cent of the Canadian population, and that new satellites being launched in the next few years will cover the rest.

Any intervention, they argue, will be a distortion of the market that could stall investment and could harm their chances of providing connections for certain communities.

"The commission does not need to regulate broadband," said Denis Henry, vice-president of regulatory and legal affairs at Bell Aliant Regional Communications Income Fund. "Such a notion seems to ignore Canada's track record in expanding broadband without regulation."

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