CRTC Chair Ian Scott delivered the keynote address at the Competitive Network Operators of Canada’s 10th annual ISP Summit held virtually Tuesday (and Wednesday) in Toronto, as Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault in Ottawa was introducing proposed changes to the Broadcasting Act (see Media Beat today). It was a two-pronged government message to Canada’s media that their concerns were being heard and, in Scott’s case, a well-timed stroke acknowledgement to the ISPs often-benevolent actions shown customers during the pandemic. What follows is Scott’s address to the ISP summit Tuesday.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. I am joining you from the CRTC’s offices, which are located on traditional unceded Algonquin territory. I would like to thank the Anishnaabeg people and pay respect to their ancestors.
If you had asked me in January about how I imagined today’s event unfolding, I wouldn’t have dreamed of delivering a keynote address via videoconference.
But there you have it. We’re all faced with new realities these days, and we’re all working together to adapt. This is 2020.
There is a fair bit of ground I would like to cover with you today, and as much I’m sure that you’d like to hear about from me. I should begin, however, with a cautionary word. There are a number of matters before the Commission that I cannot speak to you about. The largest elephant in this virtual “room,” of course, is the question of the review and various applications regarding the final wholesale rates for aggregated high-speed access services.
The only update I can give you on this matter at the moment is to say that the government and the Federal Court of Appeal have made their decisions. We have since stayed our order and are working diligently to bring regulatory certainty to this important proceeding. I should add that the stay decision is also being challenged before the Court.
Since we’re on the subject of review and various application and judicial appeals, I should point out that we at the CRTC have no problem with such actions. When parties disagree with a Commission decision, they are well within their rights to bring matters to Cabinet and to the courts, and to file review and vary requests with us—all avenues that are provided by the Telecommunications Act.
I will also add that our decisions are about finding the right solutions that factor in a variety of stakeholder interests. We draw on the evidence entered into the public record, and look back into the past and ahead into the future—as much as we can—to arrive at conclusions that are consistent with the objectives described in the Telecommunications Act. And we do so within the boundaries of the mandate and jurisdiction Parliament has given us.
That’s what we call regulating in the public interest.
Responding to the pandemic
What I can talk about today, and what I do want to spend a bit of time on, is your response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
I don’t have to tell you how this virus caused an immediate and absolute change in everyone’s lives.
Almost overnight, Canadians found themselves working from their homes and conducting their daily business in surprising new ways, while their children did their schooling online at their side. The office and the classroom as we knew them even a week prior had become a thing of the past. The good news is, many of us adapted to this change almost without missing a beat. Though it must be acknowledged that no occurrence in recent memory has accentuated the need for broadband in communities that are underserved any more starkly than the Covid-19 pandemic. We have heard the frustrations of Canadians in these regions, as I’m sure you have as well.
I’ll speak in a few moments about how we, at the CRTC, pivoted to respond to the pandemic, and about what we’re doing to ensure that all Canadians have access to a broadband Internet service that enables them to participate in the digital world.
But first, I do want to extend thanks for the ways in which you responded to the pandemic. Because as you all came face to face with the issues of keeping your personnel safe and managing a significant jump of traffic on your networks, you also adapted to deliver services in new ways and were sensitive to the new realities of many Canadians affected by the pandemic.
Many of you stopped the practice of suspending or disconnecting consumers for late payment or non-payment of accounts. You worked with customers to create payment plans that made sense for their situations.
Many of you waived overage fees and data caps for home Internet services. You offered service credits and struck down late-payment fees.
And you donated devices and service plans to those who needed them most: schools, low-income students, hospital workers, patients, and at-risk populations such as women in shelters.
You did all these things—and more—not at the request of government, not in response to public demand, but of your own volition. Because it was the right thing to do. I can tell you that not all ISPs in other countries responded in the same fashion.
So thank you for the actions you’ve taken, and those you continue to take, as this pandemic endures and evolves. You’ve helped keep Canadians connected to their workplaces, their communities, their healthcare providers, support networks and their civic institutions at a time when they needed these connections most—and when these connections could be accessed only through your networks.
Closing the digital divide
As I said a few moments ago, not all Canadians transitioned smoothly into the digital world when the first wave of the pandemic hit. The unfortunate reality is that, when it comes to Internet service in Canada, there is a large imbalance.
Those who live in urban areas enjoy access to a wide range of reliable and high-quality broadband Internet services. What’s more, they can access those services under conditions and with speeds that meet or exceed the CRTC’s universal service objective for fixed broadband: 50 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 10 Mbps, and with options for unlimited data consumption.
Those who live in rural and remote communities depend on less. Often their choices of service providers are far fewer; the speeds of service far slower; the data caps available to them are smaller; and the quality of service they enjoy is not always perfect.
The latest data show that at the end of 2019, a little over 45% of households in rural and remote areas have access to that 50/10, unlimited data universal service objective I just referenced. That’s an increase from the 41% in 2018, but it’s far from satisfactory.
By the way, in the interest of clarity, I should define what we at the CRTC mean by rural and remote. When we use that term, we mean those regions with populations of fewer than 1,000 people, or with densities of 400 or fewer people per square kilometre. So these are undoubtedly small areas with scattered populations—not necessarily post-suburban communities.
We, at the CRTC, are doing our part to close this digital gap. As you know, our Broadband Fund will provide up to $750 million over five years to support those projects that improve broadband Internet access services in underserved—and unserved—communities.
In June of 2019, we issued a first call for applications that targeted the hardest-to-serve areas in the country, namely the territories and satellite-dependent communities. In August of this year, we selected five projects for funding.
We have awarded $72 million for projects in northern Manitoba, Yukon and the Northwest Territories—areas where the need for improved services is significant. As a result of these projects, more than 10,000 households in 51 communities—the majority of which are Indigenous—will have access to improved broadband Internet services.
Construction on those projects is expected to start next spring, once the last of the snow melts.
We issued a second call for funding applications last November. Those were aimed at improving broadband Internet access services in communities across the country. The response was overwhelming. We received nearly 600 applications with a combined ask of more than $1.5 billion. Obviously, that’s more money that the Broadband Fund allows, so we have our work cut out for us.
Given how disruptive the Covid-19 pandemic has been to us all, and how bright a light it has shone on the need to close Canada’s digital divide, we, at the CRTC, are putting a high priority on evaluating those applications as quickly as possible.
Our objective is that fixed broadband Internet access with at least 50 Mbps download, at least 10 Mbps upload and an unlimited data option is available to 90% of Canadian homes and businesses by the end of 2021 and to 100% coverage as soon as possible.
Curiously, achieving the speed targets of our universal service objective may be the smallest obstacle to overcome. Ensuring Canada’s less well-served communities have access to unlimited data packages, competition from a number of service providers and high-quality service may prove to be even greater challenges.
By the way, I would be remiss in suggesting that it is only the CRTC that is leading this effort to close Canada’s digital divide. It’s not. The federal government has very much sharpened its focus on facilitating broadband universality. In Budget 2019, it committed to a number of initiatives with the view to achieving 50/10 access speeds in all households and businesses. A key element of that plan was the $1.7-billion Universal Broadband Fund. We noted that the government committed to accelerating the connectivity timelines associated with that fund in its Speech from the Throne in September.
The provincial and territorial governments are also rolling up their sleeves to fund initiatives that, along with private-sector partners, will put shovels in the ground to get more and better infrastructure built. These projects do not replace the work being done by the private sector, by the way. They complement it.
I want to conclude my remarks by giving a bit of an update on the various initiatives that are before the CRTC, because several will be of interest to you.
Before I do, however, I want to quickly take you back to January, when the CRTC’s Internet Code came into force.
You may recall that we created the Internet Code on the strength of the successes of two predecessor codes: our Wireless Code and our Television Service Provider Code.
Just as the others do, this Code sets the terms for interactions between large service providers and consumers. At its core, its intent is to provide Canadians with clear information and robust safeguards when it comes to subscribing to, or cancelling, home Internet services. It also gives them guidance for resolving disputes with their service providers or, if it comes to it, with the help of the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-television Services.
You might wonder why I reference this Code to a group that includes Canada’s small Internet service providers when it explicitly applies to the country’s largest providers. It’s simple: we expect you to observe the same standards of conduct. Some of you already are, and I applaud you for that. For those that are not, I urge you to follow suit. After all, it’s for the benefit of your customers.
The Covid-19 pandemic has proven what an essential service the Internet is for us all. It is your obligation as providers to offer those services in a manner that is fair to consumers—by being open and transparent, and without resorting to opaque language to obscure potentially costly or unexpected terms and conditions.
The CRTC and the pandemic
I said I’d close my remarks with a brief overview of several of the files currently before us.
You might be wondering to what extent the pandemic has thrown our plans and our schedules for issuing key decisions into flux.
If I were speaking to you six months ago, I’d probably be talking with a number of caveats. As we adjusted to our new realities in the spring, we delayed or postponed some of our previously scheduled work. We extended the deadline for the second call for Broadband Fund applications from late March to early June, for example. We also moved a handful of the dates for various public hearings.
We did so in part to accommodate public servants as they transitioned to their working-from-home environments, but chiefly to allow the industry to focus on its response to the pandemic. Priority number one in those early days was to ensure networks were robust enough to handle sudden and dramatic increases in traffic. Rescheduling our hearing dates also allowed applicants to add their views on the impact of the pandemic to our public records.
Now that we’re nearly eight months into this new reality, I can say that work is continuing largely uninterrupted and at pace.
We’re being as sensitive as we can with industry priorities as we work, and amending deadlines where possible.
Throughout, we are acting in accordance with our fundamental principles of balancing interests such as competition, affordability, investment, consumer protection and innovation, while making the best decisions we can based on the evidence provided to us in a fulsome public record.
The first initiative I want to bring to your attention is the issue of broadband deployment. To complement the Broadband Fund, in December of last year, we held a consultation to identify and address barriers that can make it challenging to build or extend transport networks to underserved areas.
One barrier that kept coming up in those discussions, and which the industry viewed as by far the most significant, was timely and affordable access to telecom poles. We launched a new proceeding on October 30 to explore and recommend solutions to this issue. Comments on this proceeding are November 30. I urge you to count your voice among those on the public record.
I spoke earlier about how this pandemic has shone a bright light on Canada’s digital divide. The second proceeding I want to bring to your attention also touches on this. Those living in Canada’s North have far fewer choices of telecommunications service providers than those of us elsewhere. They almost always pay higher prices and lack access to broadband networks that meet the CRTC’s universal service objective.
The pandemic has caused us to look closely at the services being provided in the North, and particularly those offered by Northwestel—the incumbent carrier in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, northern British Columbia and northern Alberta. Just yesterday, we launched a public consultation with a view of better understanding the state of telecom services in Northern Canada, and determining what else can be done to ensure Canadians in the North have access to high-quality services at reasonable rates.
Initial comments for that proceeding are due by January 20, 2021.
The third initiative we’re looking at is a review of mobile wireless services. Specifically, we have built a fulsome public record on the state of the market for these services, and whether we as the regulator should take further action to improve choice and affordability. We are currently studying the public record with a view to issuing our decision.
Fourth, and I spoke about this earlier, is our look into the rates for wholesale aggregated high-speed access services. As I indicated, our decision from August of last year is currently under review. In the meantime, the interim wholesale rates we set remain in effect.
I will add that in June of this year, the CRTC launched a consultation to determine the most appropriate configuration for the disaggregated high-speed access regime across Canada. We are currently continuing to build the public record.
Fifth, the Commission launched a consultation in June on the question of mobile wireless service plans and whether these meet the needs of Canadians with disabilities.
We are seeking to understand whether providers are offering mobile wireless plans that met the needs of these particular Canadians, including how these plans are being promoted. The CRTC will be considering whether it needs to intervene to ensure these consumers are properly supported, especially in light of the Accessible Canada Act coming into force this past July.
And finally, speaking of the Accessible Canada Act, the CRTC launched a proceeding in April to establish its first set of regulations under this Act. The consultation period is now closed and based on the record of that proceeding, text for those regulations are being drafted as I speak.
The pandemic has accentuated the need for fast and reliable communications networks. Broadband connectivity has never been more important—and the digital divide in our country never more starkly highlighted—than in the past eight months. For our part at the CRTC, those concerns we had about access to broadband Internet have only been magnified. We are now more focused than ever on addressing these challenges, and we are looking to all ISPs to play their part.
As you have heard, the year ahead will be busy for us. We are reviewing a number of meaty issues that will lead to important decisions for the telecommunications industry in general and Internet service providers in particular.
The good news is that despite all the changes brought upon us by this pandemic, our business of regulating is largely unchanged. It’s true that we’re not able to meet in person. But it’s just as true that we’ve opened our doors to allow hearings and meetings to flow in the virtual world—and as smoothly as before.
Through it all, our approach is the same as before. We continue to arrive at the best decisions we can, taking into account the many interests presented to us through a rigorous process of public consultation that includes organizations such as those you all represent.
I look forward to continuing to work with you.