By David Farrell
What Was Said
The following is part of an address made Wednesday by CRTC Director-General Ian Baggley at the Canadian Association of Wireless Internet Providers (CanWISP) AGM
My name is Ian Baggley, and I’m the Director-General, Broadband Funding, Engineering and Strategic Research in the Telecommunications sector of the CRTC. It’s an honour for me to address this year’s CanWISP conference. It’s the first time that I’ve had the pleasure of participating. As someone who has spent more than 20 years in the telecommunications industry, including over a decade of my career working in the private sector, I appreciate the value of conferences such as this one.
Although my main responsibility at the CRTC is to extend universal access by implementing the Broadband Fund, I also oversee strategic research and planning as well as engineering support for the Telecommunications sector. Part of my mandate also includes ramping up my knowledge of all the other files within the sector, so attending this conference is a valuable opportunity to learn about your successes, priorities and concerns, as well as about emerging trends.
CanWISP members play a vital role in Canada’s modern communications industry. Canadians in rural, remote and underserved regions rely on companies such as those represented here today to connect with the rest of the country and the world.
According to the CRTC’s Communications Monitoring Report, close to 6% of subscribers obtain their Internet service from a fixed-wireless or satellite-based provider. Between 2017 and 2018, these providers saw their subscriber base increase by 22% to 738,000 and their revenues go up by 30% to $653 million. But as you know, the broader telecommunications industry in Canada is big business, consisting of a broad range of national and regional players, where revenues grew by 5.5% to $53.1 billion over the same period.
In contrast to the size of the industry, the CRTC’s Telecommunications sector that monitors all of this activity has just under 100 employees. While we regularly conduct outreach activities, it’s impossible to meet with everyone. That’s why we make a point of attending conferences such as yours whenever we can.
A word on the CRTC
As I’m sure many of you don’t spend much of your daily lives thinking about the CRTC and its role, it’s probably worthwhile that I take a moment to provide a brief overview for context.
The CRTC is an arm’s length, administrative tribunal with quasi-judicial functions that reports to Parliament through the Minister of Canadian Heritage. We regulate radio, television, distribution (cable, satellite and IPTV) and telecommunications (fixed and wireless telephone, and Internet services). The CRTC is not however responsible for spectrum allocation and does not regulate print media. Guided by its legislative mandate, the CRTC seeks to ensure that Canadians have access to a world-class communications system.
The CRTC currently consists of approximately 500 staff, and 9 Commissioners, who are the decision-makers. The CRTC’s policies and regulatory decisions are based on the evidence filed on the public record of each proceeding and are made in the public interest. The CRTC routinely holds public consultations to gather the views of, and evidence from, interested parties on the public record. We also encourage Canadians to share their views through our social media channels, such as Facebook and Twitter, or through public opinion surveys.
I should mention that the nature of our work limits our ability to discuss open files outside the formal proceedings.
Our work in telecommunications provides a good example of our approach of regulating in the public interest. A competitive market that provides a broad range of innovative and affordable telecom services is clearly in the public interest.
In a few short decades, Canada has moved from wired, voice-only services to incredibly fast fixed and mobile digital networks. The CRTC has introduced a series of measures to keep pace with these changes – and to ensure that all Canadians can access the advantages that they can deliver.
The road to universal broadband
In 1999, the CRTC established a basic service objective: the minimum features companies offering residential local telephone services had to deliver. At one time, these features included a copy of the phone book, access to long-distance calling and dial-up Internet access.
The following year, we established a subsidy regime for local telephone service in high-cost service areas such as rural and remote communities. Since 2001, telecom service providers have paid a percentage of their revenues into the National Contribution Fund. To be eligible for funding, service providers had to meet the basic service objective.
Another mechanism involved Service Improvement Plans. To help ensure that the quality and features of phone services available to Canadians in remote regions were comparable to those available in major urban areas, the CRTC required incumbent telephone providers to invest in targeted improvements. This was a very successful mechanism to ensure access to phone service in all regions of the country, including the North.
In the modern era, access to broadband and mobile wireless connectivity has become imperative – a must-have rather than a nice-to-have. We increasingly rely on these technologies to communicate with one another, to educate and entertain ourselves, and to access an ever-broader range of services – from banking to healthcare to household utilities.
Our reliance on broadband and mobile technologies will only continue to grow in the coming years.
To better understand the impact of these changes, the CRTC held a series of consultations. Those of you who were in attendance last year are probably familiar with our proceeding and its outcome, but it bears repeating since it explains our current focus on broadband.
More than 50,000 people participated: individuals, business owners, and representatives of governments at all levels and of Indigenous communities. Many expressed concerns about the possibility of being left behind in the digital age – that they would not be able to fully realize the promise of new technologies.
In response, in December 2016, the CRTC announced that broadband Internet access and mobile wireless are now considered basic telecommunications services that should be universally available to all Canadians.
The CRTC also established a new universal service objective: all Canadians should have access to broadband Internet and mobile wireless. The objective specifies access to fixed broadband at download speeds of at least 50 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of 10 Mbps, as well as an unlimited data option.
To help ensure that broadband services in rural and remote areas are comparable to those available in urban centres, the objective also includes quality-of-service metrics, including thresholds for latency, jitter and packet loss.
The objective also sets out that the latest mobile wireless technology – currently Long Term Evolution (LTE) mobile service – should be available not only in Canadian homes and businesses, but also on major roads throughout Canada.
Our goals for accessing services that meet the universal objective are ambitious. By the end of next year, for instance, we expect that 90% of Canadian homes and businesses will be able to access these services. The remaining 10% will join them as soon as possible within the next decade.
While we continue to make progress toward these goals, much remains to be done. By the end of 2018, for example, only about 41% of Canadians in rural areas could access services that meet the universal broadband objective. In the North, the numbers are even lower.
A connectivity gap persists. The CRTC recognizes that independent ISPs, as well as other service providers, can offer solutions for bridging this gap. But no single entity can bridge the connectivity gap alone; it will take a collective effort from the private and public sectors.
CRTC Broadband Fund
Last year, the CRTC established the Broadband Fund to improve broadband services in rural and remote regions that lack an acceptable level of access.
The CRTC’s $750-million fund aims to extend broadband and mobile wireless infrastructure to underserved areas. The opportunity to help establish the Broadband Fund was the main reason I joined the CRTC two years ago.
Last summer, we issued a first call for applications targeting the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, as well as satellite dependent communities across Canada where the need is acutely felt. No household in the territories has access to a broadband service that meets all elements of our universal service objective, and only one-third of major roads are covered by LTE mobile wireless service.
We received 15 applications in response to our first call seeking funding for various types of projects. We are reviewing the proposals and expect to announce which projects have been selected for funding later this year. It is our hope that selected recipients will begin deploying infrastructure in the northern and satellite-dependent regions as soon as possible.
Last November, we issued a second call for applications covering eligible geographic areas in all regions of the country, including those previously targeted in the first call. If you are considering submitting an application, I encourage you to apply by the March 27 deadline.
To help guide applicants, the CRTC published maps that show service gaps: regions where services meeting the universal objective are not available; major roads and inhabited areas without access to LTE service; and satellite-dependent communities.
We have also published a detailed guide to help you prepare your applications. It’s important that you follow this guide. In particular, you will need to submit maps with your application detailing where you propose to provide service, and this information needs to be submitted in a specific format. Doing so will enable us to better assess whether the proposed projects cover areas where broadband service is most needed and whether there is any overlap between the projects.
An online application intake system is available on the CRTC website. Applicants can use the online application form to enter information about their proposed project and must also complete an Excel workbook with further details.
Each applicant must submit extensive information about their proposed project, including detailed financial and technical information. This is needed to effectively identify the high-quality projects and apply our assessment criteria to ensure the efficient use of the funds that are at our disposal.
We encourage you to submit to us any specific questions you may have so that we can publish answers on our website for the benefit of all applicants. Please consult our “You Asked Us” document for answers to questions that have been posed by other applicants. The CRTC wants to work with you, and get projects funded and underway as quickly as possible.
Other sources of funding
While the CRTC is doing its part, it’s estimated that at least $8 billion will be required to close the broadband gap in Canada. If we want to achieve the universal service objective by the end of the decade, it’s clear that both private and public-sector investments will be required.
The Government of Canada’s 2019 Budget committed $1.7 billion to the new Universal Broadband Fund. The Canada Infrastructure Bank will also invest up to $1 billion over the next decade. Under its Connectivity Strategy, the government plans to launch an online portal bringing together all the sources of broadband funding offered by federal departments and agencies.
Funding is also available through the initiatives of several provinces and territories.
The companies represented here today have a key role to play and I encourage delegates to take full advantage of the CRTC’s Broadband Fund and programs from other public entities where it is required.
Potential barriers to broadband deployment
We recognize that it can be particularly difficult to provide broadband services in some remote and rural areas due to limited access to support structures, such as telephone poles, and affordable transport services. As a result, some service providers believe that they may never be able to recoup the cost of installing the necessary infrastructure.
Last December, the CRTC published a notice of consultation to explore solutions. As a first step, we need to identify any impediments to building or extending transport networks to underserved areas that the Commission can address through its regulatory policy. I encourage all of you to share your comments by the April 23 deadline.
I also want to touch briefly on the CRTC’s new Internet Code, which came into force on January 31. Administered by the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-television Services – the CCTS – the Code introduced new rights for customers of large ISPs and established consumer-friendly business practices.
Canadians will benefit from having contracts that are easier to understand, clear information about prices, promotions and discounts, and protection from bill shock, among other things.
While the Code does not apply to smaller ISPs, we expect all service providers to honour its principles.
Mobile wireless review
Finally, the CRTC has launched a comprehensive review of mobile wireless services.
Our objective is to ensure that our regulations enable sustainable competition that provides better prices and innovative services for Canadians, as well as continued investment in high-quality networks across Canada.
Interested parties had an opportunity to submit comments on the public record during our public consultation. In addition, over 28,000 Canadians participated in an online consultation about their mobile wireless services, and a telephone survey was conducted with 1,200 Canadians who are statistically representative of the Canadian population. A public hearing was held in February.
The public record will soon be complete, and the CRTC will take the necessary time to analyze the information and evidence in order to make a decision in the public interest.
There’s no doubt that meeting the universal service objective would benefit all Canadians, regardless of where they live. It would open the door to a wealth of economic, social and cultural opportunities. There’s also no doubt, however, that meeting this objective represents a major challenge – a challenge too onerous for any single organization to overcome by working on its own. Our geography is simply too vast and our communities too diverse.
In the past, Canada has overcome similar infrastructure challenges through effective collaboration. Examples include the transcontinental railway, the trans-Canada highway and our first telecommunications networks. All were the result of a collaboration between the public and private sectors. A similar approach is needed to close Canada’s digital divide.
Yes, the business case seems impossible in many remote regions. But the list of potential partners is long: federal organizations and departments, the provinces and territories, municipalities, Indigenous governments, telecommunications companies and non-governmental organizations. Ultimately, what we need is shared leadership and a united response.
That’s why events such as the CanWISP conference are so important. This is where a shared vision of the future takes shape. And this is where delegates get the inspiration needed to act on this vision.
This year’s CanWISP conference offers delegates a wealth of opportunities to learn, to network and to dream. I encourage you to take advantage of these opportunities.