Keep up the pressure on the telcos, Canada

Connecting Canada is a slow and political process


Sysadmin Blog Bell Canada has lost their second appeal of the July 2015 decision by the CRTC requiring the opening of fibre networks by Canada's major telcos for wholesale consumption by third party ISPs. The result solidifies Canada's presence amongst the nations embracing Local Loop Unbundling (LLU) and heralds a round of massive changes in Canada's third party ISP landscape.

The mainstream media has focused on what this means for urban users who have fibre-to-the-premises. Now you can choose which retail vendor of internet connectivity you wish to use and this will (in theory) drive down prices, end caps, save the whales and free all of humanity. Cheering and huzzah!

There's a little more to it than that.

Urban privilege

Now that Canadian telcos can't use the almighty banhammer against third party ISPs, people in Canada's larger cities shouldn't see internet access costs climb too much higher than they already have. Canadians are still getting a raw deal, but there's at least a chance that the fight to end data caps [PDF] will succeed, removing the last lever the telcos have to make connectivity unaffordable for the majority of Canadians.

The problem is this might help less than half of Canadians. Only about 45 per cent of Canadians live in urban agglomerations of more than one million people. A sizeable 35 per cent of Canadians live in urban areas of less than a million people, many of which have internet connectivity that can be politely described as worse than two cans and some wet string.

And 20 per cent of Canadians live in rural areas, many of which are "polar bears and no roads" kind of rural.

Decisions about sharing "fibre to the premises" infrastructure, or even sharing the aging ADSL infrastructure, doesn't mean much when in a lot of places ADSL infrastructure doesn't even exist. Telcos talk about covering rural areas with the cellular networks, but there are an awful lot of dead zones, and a number of communities that still don't have a single tower.

WISPs

Canadian communities aren't standing still. There are numerous Wireless ISPS (WISPs) in Canada ready and eager to serve every nook and cranny of the nation. Some of these WISPs are for profit, some not, and some are even run by local communities or municipalities.

The number of organizations with experience has grown, and there are any number of qualified, capable bodies ready to connect the nation. A WISP can connect up an entire region fairly easily. With a little ingenuity and the cooperation of local governments, individual residences and businesses can be physically wired up with fibre optics fairly cheaply. Wireless shots can reach locations outside of the main community and can also be used as backhaul, connecting the community to the rest of Canada's internet.

The problem is, if you want to connect to the rest of the world, then at some point you have to plug into one of the fibre backbones of the major providers. This means interconnection with the telcos and they emphatically do not want to play ball.

The telcos charge punitive rates for interconnection. They also seemingly use every legal and political tactic in their arsenal to make getting access to utilities poles or the few precious rights-of-way around the country as hard as possible.

If the telco hasn't seen fit to put a fibre tap in somewhere and run a cell tower off their own backbone to serve a community, they aren't going to be particularly helpful if someone else decides to give it a go instead. At the moment, the telcos don't have to be helpful, so communities can end up having to run backhaul hundreds or even thousands of kilometers to reach a peering point, in many cases making the entire project pointless, as the cost of using rights-of-way at telco-controlled rates is simply too much.

This recalcitrance to play nicely hurts everyone in Canada, not just small players or rural Canadians. Canadian telcos fight irrational and damaging wars against each other over peering. They peer in very few places, with a limited number of partners and at wholly inadequate capacities.

The Telus/Shaw peering in Alberta (or lack thereof) is a particular sore spot for yours truly.

Promises

An additional consideration is the Canadian government's pathetic Digital Canada 150 promises to connect a mere 280k rural Canadians with 5Mbit connectivity by the end of 2017. Some northern communities will only get 3Mbit. This will not cover all communities.

Digital Canada 150 is supposed to "represent a meaningful improvement and will allow rural Canadians the use of cloud computing, stream video, save and transfer files, or participate in distance education programs online." Just so we're all clear: that's a pack of lies.

5Mbit down (the programme says nothing about upstream) isn't really enough to do much in the way of streaming or cloud computing, nor does it specify how those bits get from A to B. In theory, the telcos could cover communities with flaky and massively oversubscribed EVDO cell networks and saunter off to claim their tithe from the public purse.

Fortunately, the CRTC also enforced Net Neutrality on Canada's mobile ISPs early last year. The result creates an interesting situation for Canada's internet landscape.

Pressure for change

Canada's telcos can no longer discriminate when it comes to traffic on their mobile networks. The result will be more people using those mobile networks, as the experience won't be quite so crap. As more people use mobile internet, the pressure to do away with mobile data caps – or at least to raise them – will grow.

If the telcos are going to maintain an acceptable quality of service for everyone that is ultimately going to mean investing in more towers, each with smaller coverage areas. With the growing data demands placed on those towers, microwave backhaul becomes less and less feasible and suddenly each new tower is a point of connection with the fibre backbone.

The nation's WISPs are about to start demanding access to those fibre taps in a big way, and it is likely that they'll have the full support of Canada's rural and semi-rural communities behind them.

Forty-five per cent of Canadians in the major metros will have high-speed broadband ranging up to fibre-to-the-premises. Twenty-five per cent of Canadians in smaller cities will have either wired broadband or the ability to choose between one of three national LTE networks.

This leaves as many as 30 per cent of Canadians with internet access made from sadness. And if there's one thing the history of the internet has taught us, it's that once you're on, you're hooked.

By bringing marginal connectivity to areas that hadn't had it before, these communities will become painfully aware of a digital divide that, until internet access was made a daily part of their lives, most of them barely knew existed.

Canada's WISPs will soon have the leverage they need to prise open the national fibre backbone. Once that happens, it's game over for the oligopoly powers of the telcos.

A long fight yet

The series of pro-customer wins give reason for hope. Net neutrality and open network rulings have set precedent. Canada values an open and affordable internet. We value competition in our communications provider markets.

What remains is to fight the fight of equality, access for all at prices that those in our most marginalized communities can afford. The old arguments that such connectivity is too expensive won't persuade for long. All we need is a WISP of hope. ®

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