Would you pay an extra 72 cents a month on your own telecom bill to support Internet access for low-income Canadians and those living in remote, hard-to-serve areas?
This question formed part of a wide-ranging discussion around affordability and access to high-speed Internet on Thursday as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) continued its review of "basic telecom services."
The Affordable Access Coalition (AAC), a group of public-interest organizations that has come together to present at the three-week hearing, appeared before the CRTC in Gatineau to argue in favour of a new annual fund to extend Internet access in rural and remote areas and two different proposals for monthly subsidies to help low-income Canadians pay for telecom services.
Commissioner Christopher MacDonald noted that while the Internet can be an essential educational tool, many people also use it for entertainment, to watch movies and stream television shows on Netflix. He asked the public-interest groups how they draw a distinction between "needs" and "wants," a question that has been at the forefront since Chairman Jean-Pierre Blais emphasized on Monday when the hearing began that the commission does not want to blur the two concepts.
"Some may argue that – because you're also suggesting a subsidy – that Canadians are being asked to pay to subsidize the entertainment of other Canadians," Mr. MacDonald said.
"We're not advocating for or seeking a standard that is the gold standard of connectivity, the 'one gig' downtown service [with download speeds of about 1,000 megabits per second (Mbps)]," replied Geoff White, counsel to the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC). "We're not talking about video-gaming and high-end functions. We're talking about the basic capacity going into the household for a family to get by and function."
The AAC has proposed the CRTC extend the definition of "basic telecom service" beyond landline telephone to include broadband Internet with download speeds of at least 10 Mbps. To pay for expanded access in rural and remote areas that lack access or are currently underserved, it is proposing a fund that would cost about $190-million a year and be supported by industry revenues, including retail Internet sales.
On affordability, the AAC has suggested a "baseline" program that would give low-income households a monthly subsidy of $10.50 to spend on any telecom service. It says the program would be available to about 1.4 million households and be capped at $70-million a year. (An "ambitious" program would offer $20.50 a month to up to 2.9 million households and would be capped at $410-million.)
The groups say the cost of the broadband expansion fund along with the baseline affordability subsidy would add an average of 72 cents to monthly household spending on telecom services (assuming the telecom operators pass the costs along to consumers). That's on top of the current 37 cents per month per household that goes into supporting basic telephone service.
Funding the ambitious program would add $1.72 per month to every household's bill, the AAC says.
"We believe Canadians are on board with these initiatives," said Alysia Lau, another lawyer for PIAC, who pointed to an Environics survey commissioned by the group to evaluate Canadians' views on their telecom services and asked what they would be willing to pay to support such initiatives. The survey found the median amount respondents were willing to pay to ensure Canadians have Internet access no matter where they live was 50 cents per month and the median amount they would pay so low-income households could get online was also 50 cents per month.
The commissioners also asked the groups to weigh in on whether the CRTC has the jurisdiction to establish such funding programs, as well as whether the public would view them as "legitimate."
"The need is so great – I mean, Canadians would hug you. They wouldn't think that you had no legitimacy, if you were able to bring something in that brought Internet into their homes," said John Lawford, executive director of PIAC. "In the absence of political backing for you, which you don't have, [because] there's no national broadband plan. … Canadians want their Internet and they need a champion and you're in the right place, and the government's not stepping up."
The federal government announced $500-million in funding over five years for rural broadband expansion in its recent budget, but the AAC argues private industry and targeted government funding hasn't done enough to get people online and that the CRTC will be playing "perpetual catch-up" if it doesn't take action.
The groups argued that the regulator has the expertise to administer such a fund and ensure that the money actually goes to telecom services. PIAC representatives argued that a monthly subsidy model was preferable to the commission mandating that companies sell a "skinny basic" Internet package.
Individual members of anti-poverty group ACORN Canada (which is also part of the AAC) also appeared before the commission in person and by video-link on Thursday to explain their own personal stories of hardship due to the expense of telecom services and Internet access.
Judy Duncan, national head organizer of ACORN, told the commission that the group welcomes the recent move by Rogers Communications Inc. to extend a pilot project and offer a $10 monthly Internet package to residents of social housing across all of its service areas in Ontario, New Brunswick and Newfoundland.
But she said the Rogers model is "not as inclusive as we'd like," noting that "in Ontario alone there are 168,000 families on the waiting list to get into social housing. So that model would kind of double-penalize people who can't even get into social housing.
"It's a good step, but it's voluntary. Our members prefer to see their rights put into law and guaranteed." ACORN is asking the commission to order telecom providers across the board to offer monthly Internet service for $10 a month to low-income households.