by Cynthia Khoo and Steve Anderson
“If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself” and when it comes to Internet access, communities across Canada are doing just that. Through municipal broadband networks operated by local governments, public utilities, cooperatives, non-profits and public-private partnerships, Canadian cities and towns are galvanizing Canada’s otherwise lacklustre digital policy, as compared to the US.
For example, in January, President Obama delivered a landmark speech supporting municipal broadband in Cedar Falls, Iowa, known for its ultra-fast 1 Gbps (1000 Mbps) network. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission then redefined “broadband” to mean minimum 25 Mbps, a forward-looking national standard demonstrating awareness of citizens’ digital-era needs. Meanwhile, New York State is investing $500 million to provide 100 Mbps Internet by 2019.
Canada’s last national volley in digital strategy was Digital Canada 150, which had the less ambitious aim of connecting 98% of Canadians with 5 Mbps Internet by 2017.
Yes, the federal government’s aspirations for Canada’s digital future max out at one-fifth the US’ legal minimum. Canada’s bottom-third OECD ranking for Internet speeds (Ookla Net Index, 2015) only adds to the dismay.
However, pioneering Canadian municipalities have sensed which way the data is blowing and launched themselves leeward:
Olds, Alberta created O-Net, a municipal Internet utility that revitalized Olds’ economy and revolutionized education at Olds College, offering 1 Gbps Internet that is symmetrical – upload and download speed – and unlimited (no data caps).
Stratford, Ontario’s municipal data utility serves seven rural communities. Rhyzome Networks established Stratford’s reputation as a technological innovation hub, inspired the University of Waterloo Stratford Campus and invigorated rural medical care.
QNet in Coquitlam, BC leases excess fibre capacity, resulting in local residents accessing unlimited 10 Mbps Internet for just $20/month.
Fredericton and Moncton, New Brunswick boast free citywide, municipal wifi.
Megabit for megabit, these cities and communities are punching above their weight, demonstrating how municipal broadband is rooted in sound policy and can spark significant benefits.
The first rewards to ensue are increased cost-effectiveness, efficiency, economies of scale, revenue and savings, with other municipal departments being able to use the enhanced connection to improve their own services. QNet, for instance, has saved Coquitlam approximately $360,000 annually.
Municipal broadband also stimulates the local economy by attracting and retaining small businesses and creating employment, such as 700 new jobs in Stratford. Furthermore, generated value remains within the community instead of flowing out toward distant offices.
Fundamentally, community networks promote universal access, particularly in low-income or rural areas that private providers underserve. Municipalities taking up the slack recognize that Internet access is an essential service and should not be left to private enterprise alone.
We know that private providers lack accountability to citizens: Telus blocked its own union’s website during a 2005 strike and Bell Mobility charged northern subscribers fees for a fictional 911 service. With municipal broadband, addressing public interest concerns is the very point and accountability is built in.
There are challenges, of course. Opponents argue that municipal broadband burdens taxpayers, constitutes unfair competition, disrupts market efficiency and imposes complex systems and technological responsiveness that municipalities cannot handle. However, incumbent carriers – historically heavily subsidized – sorely need such competition and municipalities hold demonstrable track records managing roads, sewage and other critical services with complex infrastructure, none of which are privatized in view of the public interest.
As a form of local activism, it may be no coincidence that small cities and rural towns are leading this charge. Municipal broadband has become a meaningful site of civic engagement uniting sundry parties. As O-Net’s Nathan Kusiek told CKFM, “[W]e’ve had interest from communities probably on a weekly basis asking us how we’ve done this…”
Perhaps Industry Canada could give them a call as well.
Cynthia Khoo is digital policy and research fellow with OpenMedia, a community based organization that safeguards the open Internet. Steve Anderson is the executive director of OpenMedia. A version of this piece was published in the March edition of The Monitor, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ (CCPA) monthly magazine.