Is there a Right to Broadband?

canada_flag-1920x1080The CRTC in Canada (their version of the FCC) just took a step that is bound to reopen a discussion of best definition of broadband – they defined broadband to now be 50 Mbps down and 10 Mbps up. But they went even further and said that broadband is now a ‘basic telecommunications service’, meaning that everybody in the country ought to have access to broadband. In today and tomorrow’s blog I will look at the two issues raised by the CRTC – if there should be a right to broadband, and the role of governments in defining broadband.

Has broadband grown to become a ‘right’? I put the word in quotes because even I don’t think that is what the CRTC did. What they did was declare that the government of Canada officially blesses the idea that their citizens ought to have access to broadband. Over time that decree should prompt other parts of the Canadian government to help make that happen.

But even the CRTC does not think that every home in the country should be wired with fiber. I’ve traveled north of the arctic circle and there are plenty of remote places there that are not connected to the electric grid. And there are remote homes on top of mountains and deep in the woods where homeowners have purposefully withdrawn from civilization. The CRTC is not guaranteeing broadband to such places.

But the CRTC has made a strong statement to recognize the importance of broadband. This is not without precedent. During the last century the US government made similar statements about the right of Americans to electricity. The government then went on to create programs that would help to realize that right. This meant the formation of the Rural Utility Service to provide funding to create rural electric grids, and it mean the creation of government-sponsored electric generation such as with the Tennessee Valley Authority.

These government programs worked well and the vast majority of US homes were connected to the electric grid within a few decades. The investments made in these programs paid back the US government many times over by bringing numerous communities into the modern world. The electrification of America was probably the most profitable undertaking ever undertaken by the US government.

The action taken by the CRTC will be an empty gesture unless it pushes the Canadian government to take the steps needed to get broadband everywhere. The latest statistics show that nearly 20% of homes there, mostly rural, don’t have access to landline broadband. That’s an even larger percentage of homes than in the US and probably reflects the vast rural stretches in central and northern Canada.

The US government has not made the same kind of firm statement like the one just issued by the CRTC, but we’ve clearly taken official steps to promote broadband. There were billions poured into building middle-mile fiber in rural America with the stimulus grants. And the $19 billion CAF II fund is promoting broadband for areas that have none – although it’s still puzzling to understand the bandaid approach of that program that is pouring money into building infrastructure that doesn’t even meet the FCC’s definition of broadband. But the official goal of CAF II program is that US homes deserve broadband.

The CRTC statement is more pointed because it was paired with a new and higher definition of broadband at 50/10 Mbps. The only technologies that can meet those speeds are cable company HFC networks and fiber – and nobody is building new cable networks. The CRTC has really taken a position that rural Canada ought to have fiber.

It will be interesting to see over the next few years how the rest of the Canadian government responds to this gesture. Without funding this could be nothing more than a lofty goal. But this could also be viewed as a government imperative – much like happened in the US with electricity. And that can drive funding and initiatives that will bring broadband to all of Canada – and is something we here in the US ought to be watching and emulating.

How Canada Handles Net Neutrality

canada_flag-1920x1080Every country that wants an open Internet is wrestling with the same net neutrality issues that we face in the US. Canada has come up with a common sense approach that and some of what they have done could be applied here.

Telecom rules are administered in Canada by the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) which has the same role as our FCC. Major telecom laws are formulated by the Canadian parliament just as they are done by our Congress, but the CRTC then has leeway to interpret the rules.

The CRTC regulates net neutrality along with other ISP behavior through its ITMP (Internet Traffic Management Practice) rules. These rules are implemented as follows:

  • Somebody must come to the CRTC with a credible complaint of discrimination by an ISP. The CRTC doesn’t have a standing list of things that ISPs can’t do, but instead investigates and sometimes creates rules based upon actual cases of discrimination.
  • The CRTC has developed definitions of various types of discrimination over the years. For example, they use a different standard to judge technical network issues than they do commercial issues such as how customers are billed. They have developed rules that we would label as net neutrality and any ISP practice that is imposed on users that, in effect, delays or prioritizes traffic from one type of user, source, protocol, application, content, service, or destination is likely to assumed to be discriminatory
  • An ISP gets an opportunity to justify the discrimination. In order to prevail an ISP must show that:
    • The practice is justified and that the solution they have implemented is narrowly designed to address a specific problem and does not cause other negative consequences;
    • The practice is done in such a way as to cause as little discrimination as possible;
    • They must show that any harm caused to customers is as minimal as is reasonably possible;
    • And they must show that there is not some other reasonable technological solution that would achieve the same goals with less or no discrimination.

These rules have just recently been strengthened on December 17 when Parliament passed a bill that adds significant fines to ISPs that are found guilty of discrimination. Fines of up to $10 million can be levied per infraction for first offenses and up to $15 million for subsequent offenses. This adds some teeth to net neutrality and other violations.

To some degree the Canadian telecom environment is a lot like ours. Canada has three large telcos – Bell, Rogers and Telus – that each are the predominant provider in different areas of the country. The country also has smaller competitors, but like us the company doesn’t have vigorous competition in a lot of markets.

Perhaps there is something to learn from the Canadian approach. It certainly is very pragmatic and the same regulatory process is used to judge a huge array of issues. It all stems back to a law passed years ago that said that telecom providers and ISPs can’t discriminate. The CRTC has used that one rule to achieve what would we call net neutrality rules. For example, in 2005 the CRTC faulted Telus which had blocked web access to pro-union websites that were striking against it. Earlier this year they ruled against Bell Canada for charging more for access to products that compete with ones that it owns. The Canadian system builds rules based upon the cases brought to it rather than crafting a big framework of rules up-front.

The Canadian system also treats wireline and wireless the same in terms of the way they treat customers or the way they operate their networks.

The new fines are the part of the Canadian law that I find to be the most attractive. Without significant financial penalties there is not much incentive for the large ISPs to change their behavior. I would venture to say that fines of $10 million and $15 million are probably not high enough for the US Market where a carriers might make hundreds of millions by discriminating. But it’s the right concept.