Canadian government pretends to want to help consumers but is accomplishing little.
The Federal Communications Commission has given Americans an early Christmas present with a declaration that effectively doubles basic broadband speeds. Here in Canada, meanwhile, the government continues to Scrooge things up.
On Friday, the FCC boosted the speed required for companies getting subsidies through the Connect America fund to build rural broadband to 10 megabits per second, up from the previous four.
The required upload speed stays unchanged at one megabit per second, but the download upgrade is a major shift.
As the regulator puts it:
According to recent data, 99% of Americans living in urban areas have access to fixed broadband speeds of 10/1, which can accommodate more modern applications and uses. Moreover, the vast majority of
urban households are able to subscribe to even faster service… Congress directed the FCC to make available in rural areas communications services that are reasonably comparable to those in urban areas. Increasing the Connect America speed requirement means that rural Americans, like urban Americans, can tap the benefits provided by broadband through faster web downloads, improved video streaming, and service capable of supporting multiple users in a household.
And that’s just the beginning. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has also indicated that 25 megabits is “is fast becoming ‘table stakes’ in 21st century communications.” Even faster requirements could be in the offing.
Meanwhile, in the great snowy north, the federal government continues to puff out its chest over its Digital Canada 150 plan, which aims to give 98 per cent of Canadians access to comparatively paltry five-megabit download speeds over the next few years.
In light of the FCC’s action, that target – which has already been roundly criticized – goes from looking modest to pathetic.
Canada’s government has talked a big talk when it comes to helping consumers – such as with its recent introduction of the Price Transparency Act, which will laughably try to bring Canadian prices on goods in line with those in the U.S. – but has accomplished very little.
In wireless, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Industry Minister James Moore have focused much of their energy, prices from the big carriers go up virtually every quarter. Canada’s average revenue per user, the industry’s key measure, continues to top the world by a wide margin.
The problem, as University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist pointed out the other day, is that policy makers are playing whack-a-mole against huge, vertically integrated companies that are able to recoup any losses in one area with gains in others.
The conglomerates are benefiting from the fragmented reviews of their various businesses, which the CRTC has been busily conducting over the past few months. While government and regulators try to figure out how to rein them in on one front, they milk consumers dry on another.
The worst part is, both government and regulators continue to pretend they don’t know what the solutions are, or they refuse to nut up and go through with what increasingly needs to be done.
The solutions are quite simple.
As the recent respective launches by Bell and Rogers of Crave TV and Shomi streaming services attest to, the lines between broadcast and telecommunications have blurred to the point where they’re hard to see anymore. As a result, separate rules for the two areas look more outdated with each passing day. A singular law governing both is needed, and quickly.
Moreover, with the pipes over which everything is getting delivered – both wireless and wired – now so incredibly vital to every citizen, it’s becoming increasingly insane to allow so few companies to have so much control.
Structural separation, or the carving off of wired or wireless networks from the services that are sold over them, is rapidly becoming a necessity. Numerous countries – including Australia, Finland, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Sweden and the United Kingdom – have already implemented some form of separation in recognition of this.
It’s not a totally alien concept in North America, either. It wasn’t so long ago that AT&T had near total control over U.S. communications, a fact that eventually forced the government to break it up.
Here in Canada, the symptoms of that total control – lagging broadband and continually escalating prices on all telecom and broadcast services – are difficult if not impossible to deny.
That makes the government’s head-in-the-sand approach all the more frustrating.