Broadband status quo strengthening digital divide

04 Mar

subdivisionsOne of the first things I did before putting in an offer on a new home last summer was call my internet provider. I wanted to know what kinds of speeds I could expect if I ended up living there. Fortunately, I got the all-clear – the fastest connections were indeed available – so my wife and I went ahead and ultimately bought the house.

It turns out I’m not some weird tech nerd with mixed-up priorities. A home’s internet connectivity is becoming an increasingly vital selling feature, like a big backyard or a new roof, to the point where houses without good access are being valued up to 20 per cent lower, according to real estate experts in the U.K.

Buyers are now typically considering fast broadband the “fourth utility,” after electricity, water and gas.
“The more demanding buyers now want fibre-optic superfast speeds as, whether working from home, streaming entertainment or managing the stack of equipment that now relies on this, a property needs to have 21st-century connectivity,” property expert Henry Pryor told The Guardian.

I couldn’t help but notice the overlap between this particular story and another one on broadband adoption in certain U.S. cities. Using heat maps to show high-speed diffusion, the Atlantic Cities article comes to some pretty clear conclusions – poorer neighbourhoods aren’t subscribing to broadband nearly as much as richer ones. San Antonio, Texas provides a good example:

Households in and around the downtown business district overwhelmingly have broadband. But just west of Interstates 10 and 35, in the adjacent neighborhoods that are home to many of the city’s Hispanic poor, fewer than 20 per cent of households do.

The situation is similar in Canada, where more than 90 per cent of the richest people use the internet compared to only 62 per cent in the poorest quartile.

Put together it’s clear evidence of digital divides emerging and strengthening in several developed nations. As the Atlantic Cities article puts it, this is very important: “At stake isn’t the ability to stream House of Cards. It’s the ability to participate fully in a society that’s increasingly moving online.”

This raises the question of whether the status quo – which includes continually escalating broadband prices and mergers between large service providers, such as Comcast and Time Warner Cable in the United States – should be allowed to continue, or whether governments and regulators need to rethink how the so-called fourth utility is deployed to the public.


Posted by on March 4, 2014 in comcast, internet


4 responses to “Broadband status quo strengthening digital divide

  1. J. Van Leeuwen

    March 4, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” [William Gibson]

    Time to listen up and get off your butts, Canadians.

    The City of Couqitlam, BC has built an open access municipal dark fibre utility that any service provider can lease capacity on. They have also built their own data center that any service provider can lease capacity in, whether it’s for Internet service to local homes and businesses or backup and disaster recovery services for homes and businesses in Seoul and Singapore.

    Nine (9) indepedendent ISPs are now leasing municipal fibre in Coquitlam, and Rogers is leasing fibre to support its cellular deployments around the city. Service startup and delivery costs in Coquitlam are a small fraction of what they would be if service providers had to build and manage their own networks, and this has turned Coquitlam into a magnet for service providers and entrepreneurs.

    Coquitlam now has genuine service-based competition, not the needlessly expensive facilities-based competition the rest of us have to put up with. This positions Coquitlam to become one of Canada’s greenest pastures for digital economic development, whether it’s telework, home-based enterprise or growing digital industries that thrive on cheap and abundant bandwidth.

    The Coquitlam utility is called QNet (, and it represents the future of broadband access development. Kudos to Coquitlam IT Manager Rick Adams for showing us all the way forward, and congratulations to City of Coquitlam its success and for having the courage and wisdom to act on Rick’s recommendations. This was no small achievement.

    Accessible, scalable, affordable, reliable and secure Internet access has become essential to community economic development *everywhere*. Communities can no longer afford to sit back and let market forces drive development of their broadband infrastructure. This is is especially true outside of larger urban markets, where facilities-based competition practically guarantees some degree of market failure in broadband access. Canada’s rural and remote (Aboriginal) communities have the most to gain from high-performance broadband connectivity, and the most urgent need for it, but in our current industry paradigm they will be the last to get it. That’s market failure at its worst.

    The traditional telecom industry business paradigm revolves around *extraction* of wealth from the edges of networks, exactly the opposite of what we need it to be in the world’s increasingly knowledge-driven economies. We need a new paradigm that revolves around *production* of wealth at the edges of networks, and communities and nations that fail to recognize and act on this imperative will be at growing disadvantage in a rapidly changing world.

    It is truly staggering how far Canada has fallen over the last decade in its telecom readiness. The fundamental problem has been the acute lack of leadership at the community level, with notable exceptions like Coquitlam BC, Olds AB, Stratford ON, Fredericton NB and a small handful of other communities with the heads-up leadership essential to maintaining economic relevance, competitiveness and sustainability in the 21st century.

    Ironically, the root cause of our leadership gap is two consecutive generations of unparalleled economic prosperity that have made Canada the best place in the world to live and work. The down side of our prosperity is that it has left us dangerously hubristic and desperately careless and complacent about the future. Despite our passion for hockey and pride in our hockey prowess, we have utterly failed to heed the wisdom of the Great One:

    “It is a lot of hard work to get to the top. It is even more and harder work to stay on top.”

    “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”

    [Wayne Gretzky]

    Canada’s steadily decaying global standing in broadband is not the result of failures in policy or regulation, but failures in learning, personal responsibility and cultural development. We will continue falling behind in broadband development and digital economic development until far more of us are pressuring our local and senior governments for wholesale change in our telecom industry and the policies and regulations that govern our industry. This will require a determined effort to educate Canadians about the changing realities of the world around us, and what is required to protect and build Canada’s economic foundations (just trying to do my bit here).

    For the record, what we need in our telecom industry is called “structural separation”, and we need a nationwide chorus chanting this mantra to local and senior governments until they all get the message. Structural separation means network owner/operators and service providers operating completely at arm’s length from one another, instead of these ridiculous ‘walled gardens’ we have to put up with today.

    The good news is that our regulator (CRTC) already recognizes the need to move in this direction, even if our federal government doesn’t get it (or maybe doesn’t want to get it). In the U.S., the regulator (FCC) is now becoming a vocal champion for the ‘community broadband’ movement now sweeping through U.S. communities large and small. Coquitlam QNet is an example of a community broadband initiaitve.

    To get a good sense of what the U.S. community broadband movement looks like in its depth and breadth, think about attending the annual Broadband Communities Summit April 7 – 10 in Austin, Texas:

    There will be a small contingent of people attending the Summit from communities here in southwest Alberta, where somebody ;^/ has been proselityzing the community broadband message with the help of these print and electronic resources from Broadband Communities magazine (no, I do not work for them):

    Anyone interested to help advance the community broadband agenda here in Canada can bring these resources to the attention of local leaders in business, health, education, local government, senior government and the non-profit sector. You can also encourage them to get involved with the iCANADA Alliance, which is focused on advancing the Intelligent Community agenda in Canada:

    Just do something… Canada needs to get back in the game.

  2. Pat

    March 11, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    I have always perceived a big piece of the problem puzzle to be a matter of interpretation. Belgers, (Bell/Rogers conglomerates), have spent years convincing everyone that they [are] the internet or at least a vital part of it. This is wrong, the internet is simply put inter-connectivity between, well, everyone and everything. Belgers is nothing else but the gateway or doorway to that vast realm.

    All these lies they push about caps, etc., is meant to keep them as lords and masters of this digital realm, but really, they are just minor gate keepers. When the @home network first started years ago, you signed up and got an IP address, that’s it, beyond hardware maintenance they had nothing to do with it, period. And, that is the way it should be!

    I strongly resent the implications that they [must] rule like parents over their children subscribers because “they have our best interests at heart!” At it’s core, that is simply a grand lie. We constantly hear the speed mantra, I even heard it equated to water and/or gas supply, ARG! That is so wrong, I do not and should not pay for a cubic foot of internet!

    Speed is always the same for everyone, i.e., however fast your modem is configured to get/put those packets, it will. When they say speed, they really are referring to load, speed is how fast the modem shuffles bits to and fro; load is how many bits it has to shuffle. Speed is a largely irrelevant measure since it is just a measure of what the hardware is configured to do anyways, and has absolutely nothing to do with a user.

    That brings us to the real measure they refer to, load. However, load is an irrelevant measure because I pay for load, i.e, if I have a 30mbps (mega-bits per second) cable connection, I am paying for a 30mbps cable connection and regardless of whether I push a 1k email or the entire library of congress, my “load” will NEVER exceed what I am paying for, the hardware just does not allow it,

    The issue of congestion comes from all the connected people hitting the core hardware simultaneously which is only built to handle so much traffic at once, (referred to as capacity). This is where the lie comes in; they have been telling people for years, “heavy” users cause congestion, but, think about it. In theory, regardless of the size of the load, we are all flowing along the same trunk lines at the same speed, so … I cannot generate enough traffic to cause congestion?!? The system treats us all as equal. The real issue here is capacity, in other words, they have built a network that cannot handle the number of potential users, (read that, number of potential users, not load). Where load comes into it is that they have arbitrarily decided that in order to save costs, they [won’t] provide what they are selling but instead regulate how long you may occupy a slot of capacity. They say only x number of users get capacity at one time and “heavy” users are heavy because they are occupying one of that x number longer. “But?!?” One might say, “I am not paying for 30meg service [some of the time], I am paying for 30 meg service, ALL OF THE TIME.”

    Here is where the lie gets down-right insidious for me, they have insufficient hardware to handle the capacity they sell, their solution? Convince their customers that it’s their fault because they are using the service they are paying for, and, that is where caps come in. To, “discourage” the faux heavy users from using a service they are paying for, they institute a load based cap that bills when you go above an amount of usage!?! In other words, you can only use your connection, “some” of the time. I would be more willing to accept their concern for fair treatment if every cent garnered from caps went 100% to increasing capacity so the caps would not be needed, but nope, it’s a part of their yearly profit line. Belgers are using caps as an additional revenue stream for shareholder margins, even throttling caps to maximize profits … and that right there tells me it is all completely lies.

  3. Babs

    March 11, 2014 at 7:54 pm

    I live in a rural area just 45 minutes north of Toronto and my only option is (slow) satellite, even though I pay for the most expensive package they offer. I pay nearly $100 per month for internet that isn’t even fast enough to stream a TV show. Bell and Rogers aren’t interested in rural customers as there aren’t enough of us in any one area. We are close enough to Toronto that apparently we fall into the Toronto spectrum. So Bell and Rogers want our spectrum coverage but not us. We don’t have enough people to have a loud voice, and our town doesn’t seem interested in making this a point of focus. (The people in town have cable but just five minutes out of town we don’t.) Apparently internet providers are going with line of sight towers for rural areas because it’s cheap for them, but rural areas generally have lots of trees, and our area is quite hilly. There’s a digital divide that starts just outside of Toronto that is going unnoticed. My friends get better internet service at their cottages than I do.

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