Canada's telecom regulator is kicking off what will be more than a year-long examination of what constitutes a basic level of communications services.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) said Thursday it will seek input from Canadians in two separate phases this year and hold a public hearing next April.
The review, which will focus heavily on rural and remote areas, will consider a range of issues including the question of whether broadband (or high-speed) Internet should be deemed a "basic telecommunications service."
Such a designation could come with a funding mechanism to subsidize the deployment of broadband services in areas where coverage is not considered adequate.
The last time the commission wrapped up a review of basic service objectives in May, 2011, it concluded that the deployment of Internet access in rural areas should continue to rely on market forces as well as targeted government funding. It declined to set up a funding mechanism for the industry to subsidize such deployment.
During the same review, the CRTC maintained access to land-line telephone service in certain underserved areas as a basic service obligation. Most companies providing those services receive a subsidy to help offset their costs through a fund to which telecom operators with revenues of more than $10-million contribute.
At the time, the commission did establish target speeds of 5 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloading and 1 Mbps for uploading and stated that such speeds should be available to all Canadians by the end of 2015.
CRTC commissioner Jean-Pierre Blais has since suggested that access to high-speed services could one day be considered a basic service.
"Deciding exactly what constitutes a basic service is open to interpretation, of course. Years ago, it meant having a basic telephone line," he said in a 2013 speech. "In light of the growing importance of broadband to all aspects of Canadians' lives, I can foresee the day when universal access to broadband will form part of the definition."
According to CRTC data from 2013, 99 per cent of Canadian households had access to broadband Internet – with download speeds of at least 1.5 Mbps – through third-generation wireless services. However, just 82 per cent had access to high-speed Internet provided by cable or DSL lines to their homes.
In remote areas where the Internet is not delivered through wires, residents often rely on satellite or "fixed wireless access," which is delivered using a combination of towers and cellular spectrum.
Last year, the federal government committed $305-million over five years to extend broadband services of at least 5 Mbps to 98 per cent of Canadians. In the fall it accepted applications from Internet service providers and will begin announcing eligible projects this spring.
In announcing the review Thursday, the CRTC also expressed concerns about the pressure being placed on existing services from emerging technologies, such as so-called smart meters used by municipal and provincial utilities to measure energy, water or natural gas consumption.
Those meters, like so many other things, require broadband access.
The consultations were announced in tandem with the release of a report on the Canadian satellite services market.
The report, prepared by CRTC commissioner Candice Molnar, found that communities dependent on satellites for Internet access rely almost exclusively on Telesat's satellite network.
The CRTC said it will hold a separate public consultation to review Telesat's current price ceiling, based on Molnar's recommendations, to determine whether the ceiling is "still appropriate in light of current market conditions and future projections."
With files from the Canadian Press