Do you have fast internet at home? In your public library? Able to watch Netflix, YouTube, or use Skype with the video turned on? Listen to a music streaming service? Game online? If so, consider yourself lucky–and likely a resident of one of British Columbia’s metropolitan areas. Because even though it’s 2017, the Digital Divide is still a real thing in many parts of BC (and throughout the country). But a recent ruling by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC)—which declared broadband internet access a basic service in Canada—may be a sign that this will change. Eventually. Maybe.
As recently as 2011, the CRTC had as a national target for “high speed internet” 5 Mbps (megabits per second) downloads and 1 Mbps uploads. The BC government followed suit, choosing 5 down/1 up as the basis for its definition of “high speed internet” goals too. Even at the time, it was definitely arguable that this was setting the bar pretty low. In theory, one might be able to stream video over this connection; in practice, results varied widely.
And as the base speed for an entire library instead of a single household? The BC Libraries Cooperative has been following the very conservative Library Edge benchmark speeds as a target for libraries. These stipulate that each library internet user be allocated minimum bandwidth at the rate of 0.5 Mbps for uploading and 1 Mbps for downloading. Based on this, even the smallest of libraries would find the minimum 5/1 internet connections challenging. The Co-op has surveyed public library members repeatedly about their library’s internet connection and identified 35 branches across the province whose connections still do not meet even the older 5 Mbps down/1 Mbps up. The Co-op uses this information and other analysis to tell the story of public library connectivity challenges, and to help identify solutions.
CRTC Decision a Target, not a Mandate
But on Dec. 21, 2016, the CRTC released a decision regarding its review of basic telecommunications services, which signals things may finally change. This ruling determined that broadband internet service must be a “universal service objective,” accessible to all Canadians, regardless of location—giving it the same status basic phone service had in the past. The ruling also set targets for minimum effective speeds of 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload for fixed broadband internet services, with a goal of having such connections available to 90 percent of Canadians by 2021, and the remaining 10 percent by 2031 at the latest. Just over 80 percent of Canadians can currently get internet connections at these speeds.
All of which seems worth celebrating! In addition to being fast enough for real-life use cases, the thresholds are also high enough that they likely can’t be met by expensive satellite connections, the only thing making the existing claims of broadband availability sound better than they actually are. Also, the CRTC shifted the existing $100 million local voice service subsidy to a fund to further develop broadband capacity, in addition to mandating a portion of future telco profits be directed to this fund, creating a not insignificant resource to assist in meeting these targets.
But the devil is in the details. As a number of commentators have pointed out, the CRTC’s decision represents a target, not a mandate. Further, a target for which any new resources look to heavily favour existing major telcos (those with “prior experience”), a disappointment to any who champion civic networking initiatives or the old-fashioned belief that democratically elected governments have an important role in the provision of major infrastructure. Finally, the CRTC in this decision largely remains silent on the issue of cost to the consumer; while there is undoubtedly room down the road for further rulings, this one did not specify the cost to rural users these broadband targets had to meet. So while the decision may represent a signpost to the future, it doesn’t necessarily represent a map, and existing denizens of the Digital Divide might be excused for thinking they’ve heard promises of better internet before.
There is still much to unfold from this decision. The committees to determine quality of service thresholds and the process for vetting applicants to the newly created development fund are still in the works. It’s entirely possible that it will take a couple of years before we start to see tangible results from this process.
So where does this leave BC’s public libraries? What can you do? Well, if your library is currently below the new 50/10 threshold, and such connectivity is not available in your region, let people who want to help know: Let your trustees know about the new basic standard as prescribed by the CRTC; participate in the next BC Libraries Cooperative connectivity survey; talk with your municipality and other civic entities in your community (schools, colleges, museums, etc.) about their own plans for higher speed internet. There may be solutions for your library through community collaboration. And keep making the case for the library as a critical access point in communities!
Scott Leslie is Systems Manager at the BC Libraries Cooperative.