Canada declares internet a necessity. But can it deliver?

The country's telecommunications regulator wants to bring high-speed internet to all of its citizens within the next 10 to 15 years. But other countries and tech leaders with similar promises have found such projects expensive and challenging. 

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
The Touch Bar on a MacBook in a demo room following the announcement of new products at Apple headquarters, in Cupertino, Calif., Oct. 2016. Canada just declared internet a basic necessity.

Canada joined a handful of other nations Wednesday in declaring high-speed internet as basic a necessity as electricity, clean water, and sewage. But bringing ultrafast internet to the most northern parts of its provinces could cost the country tens of billions of dollars.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ordered internet service providers (ISPs) on Wednesday to aim to bring broadband internet to all rural and isolated parts of the country over the next 10 to 15 years. In its ruling, the CRTC also defined high-speed internet as download speeds of 50 megabits per second and upload speeds of 10 mbps, more than twice as fast as the United States’ definition of broadband.

From Canada to the United States to India, politicians and tech leaders have said access to high-speed internet is vital for economic growth and equal access to opportunities and information. But only Canada, the US, Israel, Finland, Malta, Spain, and Switzerland have taken the step of equating fast internet to other basic infrastructure. And even in those countries, bringing high-speed internet to everyone has often snagged because of costs, poor service, and questions about net neutrality.

CRTC Chairman Jean-Pierre Blais recognized the challenge Canada will likely face meeting its goals.

“Access to broadband internet service is vital and a basic telecommunication service all Canadians are entitled to receive,” he said in a statement on Wednesday. “The availability of broadband internet, however, is an issue that can’t be solved by the CRTC alone.”

The Canadian government will both mandate and provide funding for ISPs to improve internet access over the next 10 to 15 years. To invest in broadband infrastructure, telecommunication firms will have access to an escalating $750 million industry-sponsored fund over the next five years, according to The Toronto Star. The first $100 million of that amount, to be spent within the next two years, will come from a fund that currently subsidizes telephone services in isolated parts of the country. In order for a firm to access the fund, they will have to guarantee a set price for service the regulator will monitor.

The announcement comes a week after the government unveiled a $500 million fund, Connecting Canadians, to build broadband infrastructure in remote and rural communities.

About two million Canadian households, or about 18 percent, lack access to high-speed internet as the CRTC defines it, the regulator estimates. CRTC’s goal is to reduce that to 10 percent by 2021 and down to zero in the next 10 to 15 years. 

OpenMedia, a Canadian internet advocacy group which collected 50,000 signatures for the country to consider internet a necessity, said Wednesday’s decision sets an example for the rest of the world.

“Countries all over the world face many of the same challenges as Canada, especially when it comes to delivering reliable, high-speed Internet to rural and remote communities. These challenges can be surmounted, but it will take real political will to do so,” Josh Tabish, campaigns director for OpenMedia, said in a statement.

Canada follows its southern neighbor in defining internet a basic service. The White House deemed broadband internet a “core utility” in September 2015, one of a number of actions the Obama administration has made to try to improve internet coverage across the country.

In February of that year, the US Federal Communications Commission voted to regulate internet providers as “common carriers” similar to telephone companies, stating that internet access is a public utility just like electricity or water. The FCC also expanded this month the Reagan-era Lifeline program, which helps cover the cost of landline and mobile phone services that poor families use to connect with jobs, family, or emergency services, to also include broadband internet.

According to the FCC’s 2016 Broadband Progress Report, 34 million Americans, or 10 percent of the population, lack access to broadband, which the regulator defines as 25 mbps download speeds and 3 mbps upload speeds. That number jumps to 39 percent in rural America and 41 percent on tribal lands.

But steps to narrow these coverage gaps have proved both costly and come under criticism for how they have been implemented. In 2015, the Obama administration estimated that improving broadband access amounts to about $10 billion in spending per year, the Monitor reported. Federal partnerships such as Comcast’s “Internet Essentials” program have also come under criticism for being too costly for participants and offering too slow an internet connection.

The program, in partnership with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, offers low-income families high-speed internet, a router, free digital literacy training, and the option to purchase a computer for $150. But it was slow to get off the ground, with only 12 percent of families estimated to be eligible actually enrolled in it three years after Comcast launched the program in 2011, according to a survey conducted by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and researchers at Rutgers University.

Internet giants have also tried to offer free or affordable internet to developing nations, often with mixed success. Facebook has brought free, basic internet to 53 countries and 40 million participants through its “Free Basics” app, which started as The service offers access to certain websites and internet services for free. But several countries, including the world’s third largest internet market in India, banned its use because they found it violated their net neutrality rules. In India, for instance, the country’s telecommunications regulator found the limited number of websites available through app encouraged users to access certain sites and services over others.  

Google is also seeking to bring high-speed internet to underserved parts of the world. In September, the company launched a series of apps that either don’t require a fast internet or, in some cases, any internet at all. In one app, users can use a weak mobile internet connection to download low-quality YouTube clips.

As part of its Google X research unit, the California company is also testing balloons that can broadcast high-speed internet from the stratosphere. Google's Project Loon has entered into agreements with Sri Lanka and Indonesia to test the technology. Google’s idea is a network of balloons floating in the stratosphere to deliver high-speed internet to parts of the world where traditional and expensive fiber-optic networks and wireless coverage can be spotty.

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