Do all Canadians have a right to affordable, high-speed broadband internet?
That's the focus of a three-week hearing starting today in Gatineau, just outside Ottawa, where officials and advocates from every side are debating the future of Canada's connectivity. Given that there's still a lack of basic internet infrastructure in parts of rural and northern Canada, and the prices we pay for telecom, these are big issues for everyone.
"Canadians pay some of the highest prices in the industrialized world for their internet service and for their wireless service too," David Christopher, communications manager at OpenMedia, told Motherboard.
OpenMedia, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of open, affordable and surveillance-free internet, is one of many groups making presentations throughout the hearing, including the Yukon government, Cree Nation Government and Eeyou Communications Network, and Rogers Communications. OpenMedia will be presenting on April 28.
"The whole core of this proceeding is about whether or not all Canadians have a right to affordable broadband internet," he said. The goal is to give all Canadians access to a low-speed fixed internet service, but accessibility has many facets—and also encompasses affordability and reliability, which is a problem in many parts of the country.
"We've still got large swaths of the population who do not have internet access in their home," said Christopher. A recent report from EKOS, done on behalf of the CRTC, indicated that rural Canadians were twice as likely to be dissatisfied with their internet service—and those living in the Northern territories were three times as likely to be dissatisfied.
Many people in rural and urban Canada are unable to pay for basic service.
"When you look at the bottom 25 per cent of households in terms of income, only about half have home internet access," Christopher said. "That's tens of thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of kids growing up in homes where they don't have internet access."
The internet should be a basic right, they say, because it's become such an essential part of our lives: it's an integral part of kids' education, voting, medical research, the list goes on.
The government has been promising to take up this issue for almost a decade.
"In this day and age, that would just be an acceptance of what is the reality for most Canadians," said Christopher. "The internet has become such a central part of our lives."
If internet is deemed an essential service, that raises its own questions, like how to make sure everyone can access it equally. Australia has increased internet accessibility by three per cent—15 per cent for households with children under 15 years old and nine percent for rural households—since 2013, according to the government.
"They've actually got a much more ambitious internet rollout plan than we do, and that's in full swing," said Christopher.
In Spain and Finland, the internet has been considered an essential service since 2011. To Christopher, that means this isn't impossible, although telecom companies will likely push back.
"It certainly is much more feasible than many might think."
Although the hearing wraps up in about three weeks, results won't be made public for months. Advocacy groups are just happy they're being heard.
"It's really going to be a landmark proceeding."