PIAC is concerned about government dealing exclusively with big internet providers.
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Advocacy groups representing consumers and low-income Canadians are blasting the federal government for failing to consult with them on a subsidized broadband program being announced on Monday.
“None of the groups pushing the last five years for affordable broadband… were consulted on this initiative,” says John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre. “It is clear to me the companies [involved] want to ensure there is never ‘social internet’ in Canada like social medicine. It’s unclear if the management of this thing will include any low-income groups.”
Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains is set to announce the national program at the annual Telecom Summit in Toronto. (UPDATE: a spokesperson for Bains says the program is a work in progress and won’t be announced on Monday. See full update at bottom.)
The effort will be similar to programs already offered by Rogers and Telus in parts of the country, where qualifying households receive internet service for $10 a month.
A source says internet providers who agree to take part in the government’s program and subsidize their services will receive special, undisclosed concessions in other areas.
Qualifying for the federal program will be tied to the child benefit tax credit, a source says, but further details such as speed, usage limits and price are not yet known.
Besides PIAC, the government also didn’t consult the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the National Pensioners Federation, the Council of Senior Citizens Organizations of B.C. or the Consumers Association of Canada, Lawford says.
“The program again appears to arbitrarily exclude many needy Canadians, simply due to family status. This is the inevitable result of negotiating with companies wanting to limit exposure,” Lawford says. “A voluntary program is just that, voluntary. If your ISP doesn’t participate, you are out of luck. The program can be canceled any time.”
Judy Duncan, head organizer for ACORN Canada, confirms her group was not consulted.
ACORN does not generally support corporate-led programs because of the potential for unexpected changes, arbitrary terms and potential upselling of customers.
“Our members don’t like voluntary corporate programs because our rights are not guaranteed by law,” she says.
Spokespeople for Bains did not return a request for comment.*
Rogers’ Connected For Success effort offers subscribers 10-megabit-per-second download speeds with 30 gigabytes of monthly usage, although the company says it does not charge more for going over. Telus’ Internet For Good program, which costs $9.95 per month, gives qualifying subscribers 25 Mbps downloads with 300 GB of usage.
The CRTC in December declared new basic broadband definitions, with a minimum 50 Mbps download speed and 10 Mbps upload. A number of big ISPs, including Bell, Rogers and Telus, recently raised internet service rates.
A PIAC report last year found that many low-income Canadians are cutting back on essentials such as food and clothes in order to pay high telecom bills.
The consumer and poverty groups are appealing the CRTC’s December ruling because it did not address affordability.
Lawford isn’t expecting much from the federal program.
“The service will be bare bones minimum. In a word, trash,” he says. “I find the implications of secret deal-making on the side extremely unseemly.”
*UPDATE: Pauline Tam, a spokesperson for Minister Bains, has responded. “We are still consulting with stakeholders on what that initiative would look like,” she says. “Because this initiative is still a work in progress, it will not be announced by the Minister at tomorrow’s Telecom Summit.”