How small towns are driving Canada’s digital future


portrait of Cynthia Khoo
Cynthia Khoo

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.

Steve Anderson
Steve Anderson

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.

Pro-privacy legislation a priority

David Christopher
David Christopher

INDEPENDENT MEDIA by David Christopher

Six months ago, we argued that Canadians faced a stark privacy deficit – a perfect storm of spy agency surveillance, privacy-undermining legislation and lax privacy safeguards at government departments, sparking concern from citizens right across the political spectrum.

Sadly, the situation has further deteriorated. The government’s surveillance Bill C-13 became law. The Supreme Court ruled that police don’t require a warrant to search the cell phones of people they arrest. The private tax information of hundreds of Canadians was leaked to the CBC. And the government is building a powerful new system to collect and analyze what Canadians are saying on Facebook.

These developments have prompted debate about what it will take to truly safeguard Canadians’ privacy in a digital age. Our organization has spent the past few months crowdsourcing ideas from Canadians and it’s clear a great deal can be done to tackle our privacy deficit:

1. Stronger warrant requirements: Government authorities have long been expected to obtain a search warrant to access citizens’ sensitive, personal information. Recent developments have undermined this safeguard, including lower warrant thresholds in Bill C-13, the Supreme Court’s recent cell phone privacy ruling and the government’s Bill C-44, which makes Canadians living overseas vulnerable to surveillance.

Steve Anderson
Steve Anderson

Future privacy legislation should require a warrant for government authorities to monitor the personal information of Canadians at home or overseas. This common sense step would significantly strengthen privacy protection for all Canadians.

2. End the mass collection of metadata: Thanks to Edward Snowden, we’ve learned the “Five Eyes” spy alliance, of which Canada’s CSEC is a key part, collects deeply revealing communications metadata on a mass scale. To safeguard privacy, we need legislation to prevent agencies like CSEC obtaining Canadians’ metadata without a warrant or court order. (

3. Oversight and review of spy agencies: The Snowden revelations have also focused attention on the lack of effective oversight to hold spy agencies accountable to Parliament. Liberal MP Joyce Murray and Conservative Senator Hugh Segal have each proposed stronger powers of oversight and review over CSEC’s activities. These steps would bring Canada into line with its global counterparts and should form part of any future pro-privacy legislation.

4. Tightening voluntary disclosure rules: There has been a lot of concern about telecom providers ‘voluntarily’ disclosing personal information about their customers to governments and other entities. In a landmark win for privacy, the Supreme Court ruled last June that government agents need a warrant to obtain this information. However, the government’s Bill S-4 could see Canadians’ personal information disclosed without any oversight, to third parties, including US copyright trolls. This loophole must be closed.

5. Accountability for privacy breaches: Privacy breaches at government departments have become worryingly commonplace, affecting over 725,000 Canadians, including high-profile figures like Margaret Atwood and Jean Chretien. New safeguards should require government agents at all levels to document all activities, decisions and processes that could impact the privacy of Canadians.

These proposals should form the core ingredients of any future legislation that purports to safeguard the digital privacy of Canadians. This is a practical agenda, but given the power of entrenched security bureaucracies, it will require significant political will to implement.

That said, it’s an election year and decision-makers in all parties have a clear incentive to take a pro-privacy stance. Voters should be wary of politicians who “talk the talk” on privacy without committing to the concrete steps detailed above.

We’ll continue to work alongside the large, non-partisan Protect our Privacy Coalition to ensure Canadians have the strong privacy safeguards they deserve.

Learn more at

Steve Anderson is the executive director of, a community-based organization that safeguards the possibilities of the open Internet. David Christopher is the communications manager at A version of this piece originally appeared in the CCPA Monitor.

2015 a pivotal year for Internet freedom

INDEPENDENT MEDIA by David Christopher

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From Our Digital Future: a crowdsourced agenda for free expression (

• One of the most challenging things about working for an Internet freedom organization like OpenMedia is there’s often a lot going on. As in a lot. It certainly makes for an exciting work life, but I’d be the first to admit it can also make it tricky to take a step back, reflect on the journey to date and look at the bigger picture.

When it comes to 2015, there’s a lot in store – it’s shaping up to be a pivotal year for digital rights and Internet freedom. Let’s look at just some of the key challenges we face:

Affordable Internet and cellphone service

Canadians have long suffered from some of the highest prices in the industrialized world for Internet and cellphone service. Our lack of choice and sky-high prices have held back innovation and our whole economy; 2015 will be a decisive year, with an important auction of key wireless resources and with policymakers at the CRTC poised to rule on three vital decisions on wholesale wireless access to affordable fibre Internet and the future of TV in a digital era.

We’re also rallying supporters across the US, Canada and the globe in the ongoing US net neutrality debate about whether to force websites into an Internet slow lane if they cannot afford to pay expensive new fees. Canadians are sure to be affected by the outcome of this debate – you may not live in the US, but many of your favourite websites do and the ruling could set a worrying precedent for the CRTC, which is considering similar issues up here.

Safeguarding Canadians’ privacy

2014 was the year when the extent of Canada’s privacy deficit became clear. A combination of reckless spy agency surveillance, anti-privacy legislation and lax privacy safeguards at government departments has brought home the size of the task ahead if we’re to safeguard our digital privacy.

Given this government’s terrible track record, things were going to keep getting worse unless we pushed back. So we recently reached out to Canadians to ask what their priorities are when it comes to privacy. We’ll be pulling their feedback together into a set of crowdsourced pro-privacy recommendations that we’ll publish early this year. And with a massive Privacy Coalition behind us, we can make clear exactly where Canadians stand.

Free expression

2015 is also shaping up to be a crucial year for freedom of expression. Talks on the secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are intensifying, with US President Obama pushing for a deal as soon as possible. The TPP has sparked huge concern from free expression advocates – we know from leaked drafts that it contains an extreme Internet censorship plan that’s been described as a wishlist for Hollywood lobbyists. It could result in entire families getting kicked off the Internet, merely for being accused of copyright infringement. It gets worse: Internet providers could even be forced to remove entire websites from the Internet.

We’re pushing back with a Free Expression plan crowdsourced from over 300,000 people across the world that calls for sensible, balanced rules to promote sharing and collaboration online. (

It’s going be quite a year

All in all, the stakes for Internet freedom in 2015 could not be higher. Unless we push back, the Internet we know could become far more expensive, censored and policed. At the end of the day, it boils down to what kind of web we want. Do we want an Internet that works for everyday citizens or one dominated by powerful bureaucracies, be they spy agencies, giant telecom conglomerates or powerful Hollywood lobbyists?

If we want a free and open Internet that works for all of us, we’re going to have to fight for it. You can learn more about our work to safeguard digital rights in 2015 at

David Christopher is the communications manager of, a community-based organization that safeguards the possibilities of the open Internet.

The CRTC and the internet’s future

The Big Telecom Price-Gouging Cycle


Josh Tabish
Josh Tabish

by Steve Anderson and Josh Tabish

• Last December, telecom policy-makers at the CRTC began a year-long consultation on the future of Canada’s Internet services. The Review of Wholesale Services consultation is examining how Canadians are served by the current structure of our telecommunications system and the policies that govern it.

What’s at stake is whether Canadians will be able to access affordable, independent and reliable Internet services that support their everyday well-being.

Despite gains on several fronts, crucial steps remain in reforming our telecommunications sector to ensure it provides a wide range of cost-effective services. Sadly, Canada’s telecom market is currently broken and driven by oligopolistic forces that prevent Canadians from being able to fully benefit from the possibilities of broadband Internet.

Steve Anderson
Steve Anderson

For example, in 2013, large incumbent carriers – such as Bell, Rogers, Telus and Shaw – controlled 92% of the Canadian residential market. The result of this lack of choice is that Canadians pay some of the highest prices in the industrialized world for Internet services, a finding confirmed by several independent reports, including the CRTC-commissioned Wall Report (

And the Organization for Economic Development (OECD)’s Communications Outlook. (

Despite this challenging legacy, the CRTC’s consultation could potentially improve our telecom system in two critical ways: First, the CRTC could overhaul open access rules to make sure all providers, large and small, can operate on a level playing field, by ensuring that smaller providers have cost-based access to the networks. Second, the CRTC could extend this cost-based regime to next generation, ultra-fast, fibre Internet networks, to ensure that independent providers can keep up with growing bandwidth demands.
The Big Telecom Price-Gouging Cycle

Given what’s at stake, our organization has been an intervener in this CRTC process since the beginning. We amplified the voices of everyday Canadians by facilitating nearly 25,000 independently written submissions to the regulator.

Interestingly, CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais acknowledged the impact of everyday Canadians in his recent speech to the Vancouver Board of Trade: “The very small lanterns of thousands of individual Canadians often create a powerful beam of light. It’s only when the stage is fully illuminated, by all those lanterns, that the full story becomes clear. It is only then that the full public interest comes to light.” (

While Big Telecom providers want Canadians to believe that fair open access policies will hurt investment in our telecommunication infrastructure, this claim simply doesn’t bear scrutiny. Interveners such as the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) and Primus have thoroughly dismantled such claims by using the incumbents’ own executive statements, annual reports, shareholder messaging and financial data.

Where open access rules presently exist – albeit as a “cost plus” instead of “cost based” regime – incumbents have continued to invest in our networks and new offerings have sprung forth. The evidence is clear that open access rules for independent ISPs would not only lower prices and improve choice, but they are also critical to enabling innovation that would not otherwise be able to occur.

While cost-based access is an important solution in the near term, it is also important that the CRTC consider a more effective long-term solution by moving toward opening the networks through structural separation – that is, putting an end to telecom companies controlling both their service delivery and also the infrastructure.

This is the most effective long-term fix for our broken telecom market. Doing so would put us in good international company as this longer-term strategy already enjoys support from the OECD. ( alseparationinregulatedindustries.htm)

Canadians have been stuck with high prices and lack of choice for far too long and our digital economy is suffering. It is time for the CRTC to mandate open access rules that work towards lowering prices, improving choice and decentralizing control of our telecom market. It’s just common sense.

You can learn more by reading OpenMedia’s submission to the CRTC at

Steve Anderson is the executive director of, a community-based organization that safeguards the possibilities of the open Internet. Josh Tabish is’s campaigns manager. A version of this piece originally appeared in the CCPA’s The Monitor.