Canada’s falling behind on broadband Internet access

A man types on a computer keyboard in Warsaw in this February 28, 2013 illustration file picture. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Files (Reuters)

Canada is lagging behind many other developed countries when it comes to both the speed and the reach of its broadband Internet access, according to a recent United Nations report.

But broadband Internet hasn’t made many appearances on the campaign trail so far into the federal election campaign, despite its importance in an increasingly digital world.

“Internet connectivity sits at the heart of so much of everyday life, whether we’re talking about education, about culture, about basic communication,” Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, tells Yahoo Canada News. “In many ways it’s the price of admission.”

Canada had 35 fixed broadband connections per 100 residents as of 2014, according to The State of Broadband 2015, an annual report released by the Broadband Commission. That puts it below other developed countries like Switzerland (46 per 100 residents) and France (40.2) but also behind Andorra (35.9) and Malta (35.2). The report also found that 87 per cent of Canadians use the Internet, placing it 17th in the world.

Additional data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that Canada is well below OECD average for wireless broadband subscriptions, at 26th in the world.

“If we’re falling behind in terms of ensuring that access, then we’re simply falling behind,” Geist says.

Last year the federal government launched a program to bring high-speed Internet (5 megabits per second (Mbps) download speed minimum) to another 280,000 households by 2017, which would bring access to 98 per cent of Canadian households. The government’s Digital Canada site now says that number will be 356,000 households by the country’s 150th anniversary. And Conservative Leader Stephen Harper promised an additional $200,000 over seven years to improve broadband in rural and remote areas at a campaign event in late August. But an Industry Canada report released earlier this year still lists the 280,000 target for March 31, 2019, not 2017.

And those targets still fall short of the CRTC’s own for broadband access with download speeds of at least 5 Mbps for 100 per cent of the Canadian population by the end of 2015, as outlined in their 2015-2016 Priorities and Planning Report.

“The Liberal Party of Canada considers world-class wireless and Internet connectivity a vital part of 21st century infrastructure,” Liberal Party spokesperson Jean-Luc Ferland tells Yahoo Canada News in a statement. The Liberals support new investment into infrastructure, Ferland says, which includes telecommunications infrastructure that would increase broadband access.

Matt McCarthy, the NDP candidate in Parry Sound-Muskoka in Ontario, spoke in July about the need for broadband Internet in his area, and said his party supports expanded access to broadband Internet into rural and remote areas.

But the discussion cannot just be about whether or not the option for broadband access exists in an area, Geist says. It’s also important to consider the cost of that access in order to reach the goal of universal affordable access, he says.

Meanwhile, recent changes to broadband regulations made by the U.S.’s telecommunications regulator leave Canada in the dust. In January, the Federal Communiciations Commission announced that an Internet service had to download at least 25 Mbps and upload at 3 Mbps. That’s five times the Canadian standard of downloads at 5 Mbps to qualify as broadband.

Geist says that a desire to set achievable goals could be why Canada’s bar for broadband is set so low. But setting ambitious goals we may not hit will go much further to ensure access gets to where it needs to be, he says.

“I think it’s merely just been a failure of ambition,” Geist says. “There isn’t any reason why we couldn’t set a higher target.”