First Nations Internet service providers are applauding the ruling by Canada’s telecommunications and broadcasting regulator that all Canadians should have access to high-speed Internet.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC’s) decision was announced last Wednesday.
It sets base broadband Internet speeds at 50 Megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 10 Mbps for uploads and recognizes that high-speed Internet is crucial to full engagement in the economy and digital society, the First Mile Connectivity Consortium (FMCC) said in a statement issued last Thursday.
“Finally, the government is making the link between broadband connectivity and economic development in remote communities,” said Sally Braun, general manager of Western James Bay Telecom Network in the FMCC statement.
“There is considerable untapped entrepreneurial energy and spirit in remote First Nations communities.”
The FMCC is a not-for-profit association of First Nations and Inuit telecommunications organizations and researchers.
It said the creation of a $750-million fund, on top of existing government programs for rural areas, will help “level the playing field” and enable First Nations tech companies to grow and improve Internet services in their communities.
Due to a lack of services, such as schools and hospitals, as well as business opportunities, remote and northern communities depend upon reliable, high-speed Internet for eHealth, long distance learning, government and emergency services.
Yet, these communities continue to be under-served, and experience slower and more expensive Internet connections than users in urban areas.
Internet speeds can be “very, very slow” in rural Canada, Heather Hudson, an affiliate professor at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said in an interview last Friday.
Hudson has done research in remote communities, and what she heard was that the Internet was too slow for telemedicine, webinars and for reliably streaming video.
Communities that rely on satellite Internet, like those in parts of Northwest Territories and Nunavut, experience lots of delays, she said.
What’s more, Hudson added, data caps are hit pretty quickly in these areas, further hindering Internet access.
The CRTC’s decision includes the option for unlimited data anywhere in Canada.
Hudson hopes the $750-million fund, set up to help providers bring Internet speeds in remote areas up to urban levels, will open the door to smaller and Indigenous companies looking to break into the telecommunications market.
Smaller, rural companies “understand the needs of the communities and they can hopefully do more local training and hiring,” she said.
Details about how the fund will work, and who will have access to those dollars, have yet to be determined.
“The devil’s in the details,” said Hudson.
The CRTC wants 90 per cent of Canadian homes and businesses to have access to high-speed Internet by 2021, and the remaining 10 per cent in the next 10 to 15 years.
Hudson found this timeline “a little disappointing,” because that last 10 per cent are going to be in northern regions, and a decade or more is a long time to be without equal and adequate access to the Internet.
It is also unfortunate, said Hudson, that the CRTC didn’t include affordability in its ruling.
The CRTC said marketplace competition will help bring down prices, but Internet service providers that rely on costly satellite services, namely, those operating in remote communities, don’t have much leeway in the prices they offer to customers, said Hudson.
In the United States, she noted, there are subsidies for the Internet in schools and libraries. Such subsidies were not a part of last Wednesday’s announcement.
“Affordability is really a continuing issue, and I don’t see that necessarily changing as a result of this decision,” said Hudson.
It’s unclear at this time what the Yukon government’s role will be in expanding high-speed Internet access beyond Whitehorse.
Economic Development Minister Ranj Pillai said last Friday he is “quite happy” about the CRTC’s move to make high-speed Internet a basic service.
Questions about how the $750-million fund is divvied up won’t be answered until the new year, he told the Star.
“As it’s been stated now, it seems to be putting the responsibility on the providers,” he said.
Pillai’s major concern for the time being is redundancy. The construction of a second fibre optic line in the territory to ensure continuous and reliable Internet is a top priority, he said.
“I have been mandated to come up with a solution through our department for redundancy, so certainly this is a major focus of work for me and for the departments that I’m working with, so certainly, this a priority.”