Coalition plans push for cheaper internet

Participants call for federal intervention on telecoms to curb steadily rising bills

This article was written by Rosa Saba and was published in the Toronto Star on February 26, 2021.

Laura Tribe, executive director of OpenMedia, said the issue of affordable internet has become “a game of hot potato” that leaves consumers waiting for relief. “We’ve gone years without any real solution.”

A coalition of advocates, organizations and researchers is launching a nationwide day of action to demand affordable-internet policies from the federal government.

The online Day of Action for Affordable Internet, March 16, will “demand the immediate implementation of federal measures to deliver affordable internet and wireless services in Canada and to put an end to constantly increasing bills,” according to a press release Thursday.

The pandemic has made affordable internet access — already an issue before COVID-19 — an acute need, said Laura Tribe, executive director of grassroots organization OpenMedia.

People who once could get by with just a cellphone, or who relied on internet access at the library, now need internet at home to work, get education or access basic services, she said.

“People have really been forced to prioritize their internet access, even though … it hasn’t been any more available or affordable for them,” Tribe said, adding that while there is a patchwork of national and regional programs aimed at bridging the digital divide, many fall through the cracks.

Coalition participants include telecom company TekSavvy, advocacy group ACORN Canada, researchers and research groups including the Ryerson Leadership Lab.

ACORN has been calling for more affordable internet for years and has argued that existing programs don’t do enough to make internet affordable for low-income Canadians. Ria Rinne, cochair of ACORN’s Etobicoke chapter, said the organization is calling for a program that provides $10-a-month internet for all low-income Canadians.

John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, said his organization alongside others has been asking for a short-term solution since the beginning of the pandemic to help low-income people access the

internet without breaking the bank. He noted that Canada’s international peers have done better in this regard, such as the United States’ Lifeline program. Canada’s biggest telecom companies provided some respite by removing data caps near the beginning of the pandemic, but only temporarily.

The CRTC has taken a “hands-off” approach to affordable internet access during the pandemic, Tribe said. In the long run, Lawford wants to see the right of all citizens to access affordable internet enshrined into Canada’s Telecommunications Act.

“If you don’t have the legal underpinning, you can’t make companies do it. That’s the bottom line,” he said.

Tribe said the issue of affordable internet has become “a game of hot potato” that leaves consumers waiting for relief. “This issue has been stalled at the government, at the CRTC, at the Competition Bureau … we’ve gone years without any real solution.”

The issue came into sharper focus on Thursday morning, as the Supreme Court declined to hear Bell Canada’s appeal of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s 2019 decision to lower what network operators can charge independent internet service providers, a win for smaller telecom companies and potentially for consumers as well.

This decision could lower retail internet costs, but was suspended after Bell and other big companies appealed it.

The federal cabinet and Federal Court of Appeal have both refused to overrule the CRTC’s decision. The Supreme Court also awarded costs to the respondents: Competitive Network Operators of Canada and TekSavvy.

TekSavvy vice-president Andy Kaplan-Myrth said while the company is pleased with the deinternet cision, the journey isn’t over yet — now it’s up to the CRTC to officially weigh in on Bell’s request that it review its own decision.

“The fact is, they are still winning just by delaying the rates coming into effect,” said Kaplan-Myrth.

In an email, Bell spokesperson Nathan Gibson said while the company is disappointed by the decision, “the wholesale rates at issue remain under review by the CRTC, guided by the federal cabinet’s direction that the original rates were too low. We look forward to seeing the outcome of that process in the near future.”

Kaplan-Myrth added that the wholesale rates affect smaller companies like Teksavvy’s ability to compete in the market, which in turn affects overall consumer prices.

The CRTC has already found that the rates are inflated, he said. “So really, the lowest hanging fruit, the easiest way to implement lower prices and make service more affordable for people, is simply to uphold a decision that they already made.”

Peter Nowak, also a TekSavvy vice-president, said the day of action is closely related to the issue of wholesale prices and Bell’s review of the CRTC’s decision.

“The day of action is really … the result of frustration over this sort of thing, whether it’s delays, whether it’s gaming of the system, whether it’s a huge lobbying imbalance,” he said.

Tribe said the Supreme Court’s decision sends a strong message to the largest telecom companies that “all of this time in the courts is wasting Canadians time and money” and that the companies will have to “face the music.”

The final list of participants as well as the agenda for the day of action will be announced on March 9.