Digital Canada 150: Like 'Broadband Britain' but even worse

via Flickr © ankakay (CC BY 2.0)

via Flickr © ankakay (CC BY 2.0)

  • Government initiative big on promises and short on delivery
  • Incumbent and its established "rivals" still have the whip hand
  • Broadband competition and service remain limited
  • But there's a WISP of hope on the horizon

Here at TelecomTV we might, indeed we do, moan about the government's plan for "Broadband Britain". Over the years (far too many of them) much has been promised but delivery has been sporadic and partial, coverage piecemeal and the entire programme has been characterised by a lack of real forward-thinking, coherent planning and, all-in-all, has demonstrated a paucity of imagination and limited determination. But, then you look around and see that there's always someone worse off than yourself. Just take a shufti at broadband Internet services in Canada. Examination of the state of Internet broadband there is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope and back in time to an era long past in Europe.

For what now seems like an eternity the regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), has been trying to introduce a regime of the mandatory sharing of broadband networks particularly in terms of fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP). The CRTC's argument is that network sharing is necessary because elements of telecommunications networks are either very hard to replicate, or simply cannot be replicated economically.

However, despite the plan to increase the number of competitors in Canada, a push that has been underway since 2007, the old incumbent telco, Bell Canada, followed by established rivals Telus and Rogers, still dominate the Canadian market but the populous provinces of Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia still lack a properly established fourth wireless player.

Furthermore, although  in 2012 the federal government finally relaxed laws relating to restrictions on the foreign ownership of Canadian telecoms assets, not one serious and well-established overseas player has yet entered the Canadian market, even though the government has bent over backwards and dropped its drawers in an attempt to coax AT&T and Verizon over the 49th Parallel.

Meanwhile, Bell Canada (and others) have lobbied hard, obfuscated and fulminated against the CRTC's ruling that the local loop must be unbundled and that wholesale access to fibre networks be provided to third-party ISPs. However, at last and very recently Bell Canada has lost the second appeal it made back in July 2015, over a year ago now, against the regulator's wholesale access decision and the stage now seems to be set for a sea change in the Canadian broadband environment. Things move slowly in the canadian telecoms environment.

Indeed, Canadian domestic consumers and businesses alike have long complained about the lack of competitive choice and that broadband services are both patchy and over-priced. (And it is quite true that broadband services in Canada are generally more expensive than in Europe, although they are also rather less pricey than over the border in the United States).

Digital Canada 150: Big on promises, short on delivery

Canada is vast and there is a deep distinction between the cities and far-flung rural communities and, as far as the emergence of third-party ISPs in metropolitan areas is concerned, broadband access prices should now at least remain stable and might even start to fall. That may not be true elsewhere in the country. Established telcos are notorious for the enthusiastic policing of an inflexible and punitive regime of limited and rigid data caps and the joyous bashing of subscribers with additional heavy charges and fees for those who transgress against their arbitrary and unrealistic limits.

Some 45 per cent of Canada’s population live in cities with a population of more than a million people while 35 per cent live in towns or urban areas of less than a million. Internet connectivity for that latter population has long been a source of anger and discontent. The remaining 20 per cent of Canadians live in smaller, widely-disbursed rural communities spread over immense distances, and their problems have scarcely been acknowledged, let alone addressed.

Canada has its equivalent of "Broadband Britain". Called Digital Canada 150 it is an even more feeble initiative than the one across The Pond. The government claims that Digital Canada 150 will provide "a meaningful improvement and will allow rural Canadians the use of cloud computing, stream video, save and transfer files, or participate in distance education programs online." The programmes also calls for tens of thousands of Canadians living out in rural communities to be connected to the broadband Internet by the end of 2017.

Sounds good, doesn't it? Until, that is, you juxtapose the promises with the technological reality - Digital Canada 150 regards "broadband Internet" for the bulk of the rural population as a mere 5mbit/s (and that's download speed, there are no published parameters for upload bandwidth) whilst those in the most northerly and farthest-flung communities will get just 3Mbit/s, if they are lucky. There's not much cloud computing or video streaming that can be done with that.

The Will o' the WISPS

In rural parts of the UK, where government initiatives and established telcos have failed local communities, other organisations have stepped into the breach and acted themselves to provide meaningful fibre-optic broadband connectivity at reasonable prices.

And in Canada there are a lot of WISPs (Wireless ISPs) whose will it is to get something done. Some WISPs are commercial companies working for a profit and others are not-for-profit organisations run by municipalities and local communities, but both WISP manifestations are connecting homes, schools, hospitals and businesses to the broadband internet in their own particular neck of the woods with no help (but often hindrance) from traditional players.

However, the bottleneck and difficulties come - as has happened so many times before in so many counties especially the UK  - at the point of interconnect to the fibre backbone of an established or incumbent operator such as Bell Canada. That's when and where all but insurmountable obstacles (technological, legal and pecuniary) are piled high in front of upstart competitors and things come to a juddering halt. With many Canadians effectively digitally disenfranchised and prevented from becoming a part of the Internet economy as a direct result of  continued recalcitrance on the part of established 'traditional' telcos, the whole mess is also having a deleterious effect on Canada's macro economic progress as well.

The CRTC is trying to mitigate this pernicious problem and last year it introduced strict net neutrality regulations that prevents Canada's mobile ISPs from prioritising their own traffic over that of others. This means that mobile telcos will have to spend more on investing in more and smaller cell sites, something they have been avoiding and that they are not at all keen to do.

Now though they'll have to and the days of oligopoly and selective service in Canada might be about to some to an end. The incumbents have had it all their own way for far too long and have milked the system and the subscribers literally for all they are worth. Soon they might have to provide truly competitive services for the first time or suffer the consequences when customers churn away in their millions - and who would blame anyone that decides to vote with their feet and wallets after years and years of determined exploitation?

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