A coalition of groups representing consumers, seniors and anti-poverty activists is calling on Canada's telecom regulator to force industry players to expand access to high-speed Internet for low-income households and those living in rural areas.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is undertaking a significant review of what constitutes "basic telecommunications service," and one of the biggest questions will be whether to include broadband, or high-speed, Internet in that definition.
The coalition, which includes the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) and the community group ACORN Canada, is asking the CRTC to address two central issues related to broadband: accessibility and affordability. The groups filed a lengthy intervention along with survey and expert evidence on Tuesday for the first phase of the CRTC's consultation.
They want a new funding mechanism that requires the telecom industry to contribute to the expansion of Internet service in areas that lack coverage – primarily rural and remote parts of the country – and a monthly subsidy for low-income households to spend on telecom services.
"Availability is about ensuring that everyone gets access to a bare minimum of broadband speeds," said Geoff White, external counsel to PIAC. "That leads to the question of whether broadband should be essential, and there's absolutely no question in this day and age that it is."
Alejandra Ruiz was among about a dozen ACORN members who went to the Toronto offices of the CRTC on Tuesday to deliver personal testimonials from low-income Canadians on how the high cost of Internet access affects their lives. (The group made similar deliveries to other CRTC offices around the country.)
"It's not a luxury," she said, citing families with children who cannot do school work at home or people who must travel to agencies or libraries to look for jobs. "It cannot be a luxury when you have very isolated people whose only friends are on the Internet. It cannot be a luxury when you have people who are newcomers and the only way they can communicate with their family is through the Internet.
"I am a housing worker, and I see how my clients struggle day by day with food, with rent. Imagine adding $65 more to your budget for Internet. And you know you need it. It's very difficult to afford that and to keep it up," Ms. Ruiz said. "Low-income life is not easy."
While some telecom providers have targeted initiatives aimed at extending Internet access for low-income Canadians, no overarching national program addresses the issue.
In 2013, Rogers Communications Inc. began offering broadband service for $9.99 a month to residents of Toronto Community Housing. It now serves 7,000 families under that program, spokesman Aaron Lazarus said on Tuesday.
Ms. Ruiz said she would like to see the initiative expanded to more low-income Torontonians.
BCE Inc. spokesman Jason Laszlo said the focus of his company's charitable initiatives is the Bell Let's Talk program, which has committed to providing fibre Internet service to United Way Toronto community hubs that bring health and social services together under one roof. (BCE owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.)
Representatives for Telus Corp. and Shaw Communications Inc. declined to comment for this story.
Mr. White said the coalition's view is that market forces and government funding alone have not led to adequate accessibility and affordability, and that is why an industry contribution fund is necessary.
In terms of accessibility, the groups are proposing a target download speed of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) by 2020. They are also asking the CRTC to conduct more monitoring to address the issue of out-of-date data.
The CRTC last wrapped up a review of basic service objectives in 2011, and at the time it set 5 Mbps as a target for download speeds and 1 Mbps for upload speeds and said such speeds should be available to all Canadians by the end of 2015.
CRTC data from 2013 revealed that many residents of rural and remote areas still did not have access to such services.