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Canadian Minister Open to Transforming Internet Access Into a Universally Available Public Utility

Only 40% of rural Canadians today have suitable internet access and a Canadian minister is now “open to the idea” of transforming broadband in the country into a universally available public utility.

Minister for Rural Economic Development Maryam Monsef admits that Canada’s current reliance on private cable and phone companies like Bell, Telus, and Rogers has kept large parts of Canada from getting affordable, 21st century internet access. Creating a public broadband utility that would provide universal access may be the best solution to reaching areas considered too unprofitable to serve by private companies.

The impetus to consider creating one of the world’s largest publicly owned broadband providers comes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced millions of Canadians to work from home. But with well under half of rural Canada lacking high speed internet service, educators, medical personnel, and business workers find themselves unable to connect.

Nancy and Jeff Boss of Flamborough, Ont., live 10 minutes outside of Hamilton. They are “off the grid” for high speed internet by just 100 meters. To bring cable broadband to their home, the local cable company quoted an installation price of $27,000. As a result, the Boss family relies on a cell phone data plan that costs $150 a month and offers 100 GB of usage on a 4G LTE network. The family often exceeds its usage allowance, and told CBC’s “The Current” their monthly bill has crept up to $500 in usage charges at times.

Nancy Boss is a school teacher, and life without internet in the COVID-19 era of online classes is difficult.

“I am struggling daily with my lessons, I can’t do live lessons as the minister of education is requiring us,” Boss told CBC Radio, adding that her own children’s education is being affected too. “It’s really hard for our kids to participate in their lessons [and] it’s sad, they can’t chat with their friends who they miss very much.”

Monsef

The Liberals promised $5-6 billion for rural internet expansion in the 2019 budget as part of a party pledge to get 100% of Canadians connected to high-speed internet by 2030. But that was before the pandemic struck, making internet connectivity more essential than ever before.

Broadband advocacy group OpenMedia’s Laura Tribe says the government’s promises are nice, but the target date remains 2030 — a decade away. She argues people need internet access today. Tribe says the weak link is relying on corporate cable and phone companies to do the work to reach rural Canada. Despite repeated funding efforts and ongoing lobbying, Tribe believes many of the country’s largest providers have dragged their feet on rural expansion for years, noting they operate in the interest of shareholders, not rural Canadians. Recently, Tribe believes many of Canada’s largest telecom companies have made rural Canadians “pawns” in a greater debate about deregulation and wireless spectrum for 5G. When providers see their business interests threatened, they warn lawmakers and regulators the result may be further delays in rural internet expansion.

That is why Tribe advocates declaring broadband service to be an essential public utility, putting the onus on the government to complete “last mile” buildouts to individual rural homes and businesses like the Boss family as quickly as possible. On that point, Monsef seemed to agree.

“One of the things that the federal government can do is to invest in that last mile, where the business case for the private providers is not the same,” Monsef, who also serves as the MP for Peterborough-Kawartha said. “Once you do connect Canadians, though, those investments will pay off because that connectivity leads to economic development and a higher quality of life.”

When pressed about her support for declaring broadband service a national public utility, Monsef said she was open to the idea and having a debate on what solution will work best for rural Canada.

“What COVID has done is create an opportunity for a resurgence of good ideas, and that’s a good idea that I’m open to,” Monsef said. “This is among the many good ideas that we are considering: What are the pros? What are the cons? How do we get it done? Who’s on board?”


Minister for Rural Economic Development Maryam Monsef appeared on CBC Radio Ottawa’s morning show to discuss the state of rural broadband in Canada. (9:58)

CBC Radio One’s “The Current with Matt Galloway” spent a half hour exploring the plight of rural Canadians expected to work at home who lack suitable internet access. Is it time for Canada to make broadband service a public utility? (24:07)

Canadian Mobile Operators Raking in Fat Coronavirus Profits With Bill Shock

Canadians are opening cell phone bills that have skyrocketed as a result of usage from work-at-home initiatives to stop the spread of COVID-19, a health crisis that is also fattening profits at some of the country’s biggest mobile operators.

Rosette Okala of Pickering, a suburb of Toronto, was stunned to receive her Rogers Mobile bill this month for $540, up from the usual $160 she is used to paying.

“I almost dropped,” Okala told CBC News. She is a pharmaceutical employee whose job requires being online. Her 12-year-old son has been online more too, doing schoolwork.

The part of Pickering where Okala lives does not have wired internet service available, so she relies on internet service from her mobile provider, like hundreds of thousands of other Canadians do. Pickering is hardly a tiny town either. With a population of 92,000, the city is immediately east of Toronto in the Durham Region. Despite that, there are sections of the city still waiting to get wired internet service.

Using the internet in areas considered to be “rural Canada” by providers is not cheap. Rogers offers customers a $145/mo wireless internet plan that includes 100 GB of usage. Customers that exceed that do so at their peril, facing overlimit fees of $5/GB.

“This is just a slap in our face,” said Okala. “We [rural customers] pay huge bills just to be able to do something basic that most people take for granted.”

Okala hoped her employer would help cover her phone bill. Rogers has been reluctant to help, despite a showy ad campaign from the cable and wireless giant promising customers “we are in this together and are here to help.” When it comes to billing matters, talk is cheap and help is hard to find.

Pickering, Ont.

Okala said she spent hours on the phone with a Rogers representative trying to negotiate a lower bill. Rogers eventually offered a paltry $30 credit and a payment plan to pay off her balance. A second attempt resulted in an improved offer of $100 credit, an upgrade to a different service plan, and 50% off monthly service fees for 24 months. But Rogers still wanted to be paid at least $440, at least until the CBC pointed out it would share Okala’s story with the rest of Canada for free. Rogers suddenly offered to take another $230 off Okala’s March bill and give her the mobile hotspot hub she was leasing for free.

John Burbidge, a University of Waterloo economics professor in North Dumfries living in a town of 10,000 near Cambridge, Ont., got schooled in the mobile broadband business by Bell Mobility, which sent him a bill for $650, including nearly $400 in usage charges. Burbidge was confused by an email from Bell, Canada’s largest phone company, which claimed it was waiving overlimit usage fees for customers during the pandemic. He missed the fine print advising that fee waiver only applied to Bell’s DSL and fiber wired customers, not wireless data plans. Burbidge argued it was unfair to exempt some customers from usage fees, while continuing to charge them to others.

“If rural Canadians are expected to work and do school work from home, decent and reasonably priced access to the internet is a basic right. Bell should not be allowed to gouge rural customers,” Burbidge told Canada’s public broadcaster.

Bell told the CBC the company was offering customers an extra 10 GB on customer data allowances and a $10 credit off the cost of using a mobile hotspot connected to Bell’s mobile network. As a courtesy, Bell agreed to credit Burbidge’s account $350 for March and take 60% off overlimit fees in April, but he is on his own after that. Burbidge’s current plan charges $180 a month for up to 100 GB a month, with a $5/GB overlimit fee.

“It’s really sad to hear,” Laura Tribe, executive director of consumer group OpenMedia told the CBC. “Data caps are definitely unnecessary. We see them as a punitive mechanism to make sure that people suppress the amount of data that they use and overpay when they go over what they want.”

The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA), an industry lobbying group representing the country’s wireless companies, claims data caps are necessary to prevent overwhelming Canada’s wireless networks, which could make calling 911 impossible. But voice calls can travel over different spectrum than data traffic, and no wireless company or the CWTA would admit if their networks were close to being overhwhelmed by traffic as a result of millions of Canadians working from home.

Tribe says the traffic spikes that have come from the coronavirus crisis prove her point. Even with data usage at all-time highs, no provider is claiming their network is close to capacity. That should call into question whether there is any need at all for mobile data caps.

“They’re a way to increase profits and suppress the usage of the networks,” said Tribe.

Siberia May Have Better Rural Internet Access Than You Do

Russian satellite television provider Tricolor, in collaboration with Eutelsat Networks, has launched satellite broadband service throughout Siberia, with data plans offering speeds up to 100 Mbps.

Customers can choose from packages of internet and television service or just go broadband-only. A one time fee of $136.75 gets the customer a startup package including a satellite receiver and data modem. Customers can pick up equipment from stores in Novosibirsk, Omsk, Tomsk, Krasnoyarsk, Barnaul, Irkutsk and Kemerovo or have it direct shipped to their home address.

Customers can choose between three “unlimited” data packages: 40/10 Mbps for $75/mo, 20/5 Mbps for $45/mo, or 10/5 Mbps for $27/mo. Like many satellite providers, Tricolor reduces data speeds during peak usage times for customers using over 50, 25, and 15 GB of usage per month, respectively. But Tricolor says speed reductions will not be as severe as some providers that reduce speeds to less than 1 Mbps. A faster, usage-limited tier with speeds up to 100 Mbps is also to be introduced, and customers can get discounted subscriptions by agreeing to usage caps on the three aforementioned speed tiers.

Tricolor provides solid reception across the Russian Federation, including the vast expanse of Siberia. Wiring a country the size of Russia is a daunting task, so satellite and wireless internet services are likely to be a major offering across the country for years to come.

Tricolor’s coverage map.

Idaho Students Harmed by Unreliable Broadband; State Senator Wants Internet to Be Public Utility

Sen. Nelson

Idaho internet access is inadequate to support tele-learning services, hurting the state’s ability to move towards online education as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

State Sen. David Nelson (D-Boise) told his constituents that “now, more than ever, Idahoans need reliable broadband.”

At the moment, they are not getting it.

Nelson:

“The Moscow School District is providing instruction online for middle and high school students but about 20% of students don’t have strong enough Wi-Fi or can’t afford the internet access needed for classes at home. To make online learning available to all students, Moscow School District has turned school parking lots into Wi-Fi hot spots and is providing wireless hot spots to some students. In the Potlatch School District, they have distributed 300 laptops and Chromebooks, but 20% of kids don’t have internet access. Potlatch is also creating Wi-Fi hot spots for some families.

“In mountainous Benewah County, St. Maries School District has a harder job. Cell service is spotty and line-of-sight internet connections are hard to come by. More than 70% of St. Maries students and teachers do not have access to reliable internet. The school district found they must send home weekly packets because they cannot do online instruction. St. Maries teachers work in their classrooms daily because neither they nor their students have reliable internet for online teaching. Instead, the teachers spend their time creating the paper worksheets for families to pick up.

“St. Maries students only get packets, while other schools teach online. Does that live up to Idaho’s constitutional requirement of a general, uniform, and thorough system of public, free common schools? Idaho needs more investment in broadband infrastructure, but we aren’t going to be able to fix this in the midst of a crisis. I wish we had been investing in broadband infrastructure instead of cutting taxes significantly when times were good.

“Our limited, unreliable broadband is often overtaxed. Internet that was already struggling to serve our communities is now unable to keep up with the unprecedented demand from educators, people working from home, families ordering groceries online, and nearly every other Idahoan using the web to stay connected. Even the time to clear a credit card payment at a grocery store has increased.”

Internet access in rural states like Idaho is mostly a mixture of cable internet in larger cities and towns and DSL service in suburban areas. Rural communities often have to rely on wireless internet, where available, or satellite internet access. A few communities have a co-op utility that doubles as a broadband provider, but in most cases rural Idaho only gets what CenturyLink, Frontier, and other telephone companies are willing to provide.

“Last year, the governor’s Broadband Task Force found that North Central Idaho has the least access to functional broadband in the state,” Nelson noted. “Since schools have closed due to coronavirus, North Idaho school districts are experiencing the consequences of Idaho’s lack of investment in broadband infrastructure.”

After years of trying to convince private telecom companies to do the right thing by their customers and expand internet access, Nelson points out the current COVID-19 crisis is a perfect example of why states like Idaho can no longer afford to wait.

“The coronavirus pandemic has made it more obvious than ever that reliable internet access is a public utility that all Idahoans need,” Nelson said.

Rural New York Legislators Slam Charter Spectrum’s Request to Limit Rural Broadband Funding

With an estimated 90,000 New Yorkers stranded without broadband service, a proposal from Charter Communications to block funding for future projects is coming under fire from a bipartisan group of rural legislators.

Charter, which does business as Spectrum, filed a request with the Federal Communications Commission to exclude certain census blocks for funding under the agency’s new $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). The cable company claims it intends to privately fund expansion of internet service in those areas, and does not welcome government-subsidized competition.

“Good cause plainly exists to grant the waiver to avoid overbuilding areas in which Charter has already begun the process of deploying service and is investing private capital well in excess of $600 million,” company officials wrote. “This will ensure scarce universal service support is deployed to close the gap/digital divide in actually unserved areas. The commission has previously granted rule waivers where, as here, the purposes of the rule would be disserved by its strict application, and where waiver would affirmatively serve the public interest.”

Many of the rural homes Charter claims it intends to serve have been waiting for internet access for well over a decade. Many were hopeful that wait would end shortly after the cable company agreed to expand service to an additional 145,000 rural New York households as part of an agreement with state regulators approving its merger with Time Warner Cable. But a March 2020 audit conducted by the Comptroller of New York found Charter was not meeting its commitments:

“[…] It has been over three years since the merger was approved. Network expansion should have already been provided to approximately 126,875 unserved or underserved premises based on the 2016 Commission Order approving the merger. As of July 2019, Charter had only extended its network to 64,827 premises. Based on the original Order, 62,048 additional customers should have received access to these services. Charter now has until September 2021 to complete the network expansion of 145,000 premises previously scheduled to be completed by May 2020.”

Barrett

Some New York legislators believe Charter is out of line asking the FCC to exclude funding for other rural broadband projects while taking its time meeting its own commitments.

“Charter’s waiver request is simply self-serving and will in no way benefit the residents of upstate New York who, even in the year 2020, are struggling to access adequate broadband by any provider,” Rep. Didi Barrett (D-Hudson) wrote in a letter to the FCC. “Charter’s petition is a blatant attempt to reduce competition and leave consumers with no choice but to wait around for Charter to finish a job that should already be complete. In Upstate New York, tens of thousands of residents and businesses are still waiting for internet service because of Charter’s years-long effort to renege on their obligations to New York State and the people who live in rural communities. We must continue to call Charter out until every household and business is served as planned under their agreement with New York State.”

Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik from Schuylerville agrees with many of Barrett’s views, blasting Spectrum for seriously delaying its rural rollout commitments. Stefanik worked with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to change the qualification requirements for the RDOF program, which originally would have excluded New York from receiving funding. If the FCC adopts Charter’s request, it would block much of her district from receiving broadband funds, either because Charter previously indicated it would (eventually) offer service or because the state previously supplied broadband subsidies, which would also seem to disqualify RDOF grants.

“I have heard directly from constituents and local elected officials that this decision would have a severe impact on their ability to gain rural broadband access, which is essential, especially during this time of crisis,” Stefanik said. “Charter’s request would exclude parts of the North Country from this critical federal funding, and I will work with my upstate colleagues and the FCC to keep it available.”

WNYT in Albany reports rural New York communities like Stillwater have waited years for Charter Spectrum to provide broadband service. The addresses Spectrum grudgingly will serve in the area are routinely quoted installation fees starting at $8,000. (2:16)

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