Will internet inequality be a thing of the past?

A couple of late December announcements drew attention to the uneven internet service available in Northern Ontario.  The first, from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), stated that broadband internet access is now considered a basic service.  The second was from two federal tribunals that have decided high-speed internet access will be a condition of employment for positions they will fill with individuals who work from home.  The CRTC announcement addresses what many northern and rural Canadians have been requesting for a long time, while the tribunal jobs highlight how important it is for everyone to have access to modern technological infrastructure.

Currently, more than 80% of Canadians receive a level of service which will become the new minimum, while here in the north a patchwork of internet service has been a constant concern with solutions being few and far between.  Until this announcement the CRTC minimum for service was dial-up and parts of Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing are still served by this decades-old technology that harkens back to the internet in its infancy.   Now, the end of dial up is within sight.

The new standard will be a considerable upgrade for some with internet service providers being asked to offer all customers download speeds of at least 50 megabits per second (Mbps), upload speeds of at least 10 Mbps, and also to offer the option of purchasing unlimited data.  Dial up at its very best can only provide a download speed of 56 kilobits per second (Kbps) but speeds of 24 to 48 Kbps are said to be the norm.  This means that the CRTC is telling providers to speed up service by as much as a hundred times for some customers.  People already using newer technology may also benefit from faster connections if the target speeds are uniformly met. 

While the new targets show that high speed internet is important, the conditions for employment with certain federal tribunals hammer the point home.  These are good federal jobs and there will likely be qualified applicants in rural and northern locations not selected simply because they are unable to acquire the level of internet service deemed a prerequisite for the position. Is this discrimination?  There’s no doubt it’s a barrier anyone would be hard pressed to overcome on their own.  Unlike developing a skill set or acquiring an education, we are at the mercy of the market when it comes to getting high-speed internet service.

In time, the CRTC plan should address this.  In addition to a prescribed level of service, the Commission also rolled out a new fund that will invest up to $750-million over five years to expand broadband services for remote regions.  The fund will be paid for with levies on telecommunication profits earned through services such as text messaging and the internet.  This is a proven formula that is similar to how the CRTC extended telephone service to remote areas.

It is imperative that the government work with industry to ensure this push for fair and fast internet service succeeds.  This technology can truly level the geographic playing field and allow rural and remote areas to participate in our modern economy on an equal footing which was how the advent of the internet was heralded not that long ago.