In the digital age, access to reliable and affordable telecommunications services is essential for individuals and communities to fully participate in the digital economy and society. Telecommunications regulation plays a crucial role in ensuring equitable access to digital infrastructure and promoting socio-economic development. In recent years, Canada has grappled with the challenges of digital inclusion. One of the key challenges in achieving digital inclusion in Canada is bridging the digital divide, particularly in rural and remote areas. Despite being a developed country, Canada still faces significant disparities in terms of access to high-speed internet and telecommunications services. Just 59.5% of Canadians residing in rural and remote regions were able to meet the government’s specified minimum internet speed requirements. This lack of access disproportionately affects Indigenous communities, low-income households, and remote regions, exacerbating existing socio-economic inequalities.

However, there is a growing imperative to engage in comprehensive discussions, leverage innovative technologies, and collaborate across sectors to bridge the digital divide and ensure equitable access for all Canadians. One example of an initiative that aims to address the digital divide is Canada’s Connecting Families program. This program provides low-income households with affordable internet access and devices, aiming to bridge the digital divide for vulnerable populations. Furthermore, the government has recently taken some more steps to bridge the digital divide. With the implementation of the $3.225 billion Universal Broadband Fund (UBF) and partnerships with provinces, territories, municipalities, Indigenous communities, and Internet service providers, significant progress has been made. 93.5% of Canadian households have now access to high-speed Internet, compared to just 79% in 2014. The UBF has funded 295 projects across Canada, with 45 projects announced in 2023 alone, and benefiting over 200,000 households. Additionally, 40,000 households gained new access to high-speed Internet through completed UBF projects in 2023. Moreover, co-funding partnerships with Quebec, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, Alberta, British Columbia, and Prince Edward Island have further accelerated connectivity efforts.

The evolving role of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in governance and public policy in Canada cannot be ignored also. ISPs, as crucial components of internet infrastructure, have increasingly become pivotal in facilitating the achievement of various policy objectives. However, this involvement presents a nuanced picture marked by conflicting responsibilities. ISPs grapple with regulatory challenges, particularly in the expansion of broadband connectivity, especially in rural areas. ISPs are essential players in the internet landscape, tasked with managing the internet’s infrastructure and thus positioned at a strategic point of control over data flows. When markets fail to self-regulate, ISPs are expected to adhere to regulations designed to steer their actions towards desirable outcomes.

Recently, a number of changes have been proposed in the telecom sector. The government has directed the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to prioritize consumer rights, affordability, competition, and universal access. This directive, rescinding a 2006 policy direction, has influenced various regulatory proceedings, shaping the landscape of the telecom industry.

Following are some updates on key deliberations as of the end of 2023:

  • The CRTC mandated Bell Canada and Telus Corp. to provide independent competitors access to their fibre-to-the-home networks in Ontario and Quebec. This move aims to stimulate competition in internet services, particularly benefiting smaller competitors. However, Bell responded by announcing a significant cut in planned network investment and challenged the CRTC’s decision in court.
  • The CRTC sought feedback on requiring carriers to provide notifications for major service outages. As an interim measure, carriers must notify the CRTC of outages within two hours and file a report within 14 days. The consultation process is ongoing, with no detailed next steps announced yet.
  • Concerns were raised about hiking roaming rates by major carriers. In response, the CRTC initiated a study and requested carriers to submit information on their international roaming agreements. Concrete next steps are expected in 2024.
  • The CRTC is holding hearings on modernizing the regulatory framework for broadcasters, responding to the Online Streaming Act. The commission is exploring whether streaming services should contribute to Canadian content and aims to make key decisions during this phase for implementation by late 2024.
  • The CRTC continues its consultation on improving telecommunications in the Far North. Themes emerging from discussions include the need for affordable and reliable services, equitable access, and improved competition. 

To align regulations with societal needs, the need and relevance of legislative monitoring is paramount. By monitoring legislative changes and regulatory decisions, stakeholders can advocate for policies that prioritize universal access, affordability, and competition in the telecommunications sector. Legislative monitoring also enables the identification of emerging issues, such as service outages and roaming rates, allowing for timely interventions and policy adjustments to address evolving challenges. Therefore, a credible and reliable tool like Gnowit which utilizes AI and machine learning to provide consumers with real-time updates on topics of interest. Its software comprehends the content of newly published articles across numerous websites and skilfully curates the most relevant ones for users. Gnowit aims to enhance decision-making by promptly delivering pertinent information to the clients as soon as it appears on monitored web sources. To achieve this on a vast scale, it harnesses artificial intelligence to monitor, capture, refine, analyze, sift through, organize, interpret, and present reports to the consumers. 

The digital age emphasizes the critical importance of reliable and affordable telecommunications services for full participation in the digital economy and society. Canada, like many other nations, faces challenges in achieving digital inclusion, particularly in rural and remote areas where disparities in access to high-speed internet persist, affecting marginalized communities. However, concerted efforts such as the Connecting Families program and the Universal Broadband Fund have made significant strides in bridging this digital divide, with substantial increases in household connectivity rates observed. Moreover, ongoing regulatory discussions and initiatives, including those addressing consumer rights, affordability, and competition, highlight the evolving role of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in governance and public policy. By prioritizing universal access, affordability, and competition, Canada can continue to advance towards a more inclusive digital future for all its citizens.