Are rural Canadians entitled to broadband access?

The CRTC is holding a hearing in Timmins, Ontario this week to hear from rural Canadians about the state of their Internet access, and to evaluate if government intervention is necessary to give rural Internet users broadband access.

Currently, most rural Internet users have to rely either on slow dial-up, or expensive satellite Internet service. Representatives from Bell Aliant and Barrett Xplore have both told the CRTC that intervention is unnecessary, because their services are improving and expanding all the time. MTS Allstream, on the other hand, has said that at the rate the private sector is moving, it will cost $7 billion over 10 years to give all rural Canadians broadband access.

From the CBC:

“The burning question now becomes whether the commission has a role to play in the provision of broadband internet services where it is currently not available,” CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein said at the opening of the hearings.

A number of countries around the world have made broadband internet access a basic right and have imposed goals for connecting all citizens with certain speed levels. Finland, for example, in July made a connection of one megabit per second a legal right, with 100 megabits promised by 2015.

Other countries, frustrated with their large internet providers, have seen their governments get involved with building out high-speed access — Australia, for example, is spending $43 billion to build a National Broadband Network.

If you ask me, Canada ought to follow the example of Finland and Australia and ensure that rural Canadians have access to high-speed Internet access.

Why? For starters, studies have shown that rural Canadians are less likely to finish high school. It makes sense; it’s not like living in the city where you can just walk to a library and find books or Internet access. A library might be several hours of driving away from home. Having broadband access at home would make it easier for those growing up outside of the big cities to finish school, and give those who didn’t finish high school a better chance to complete their studies.

And what about small businesspeople in rural areas? For example, artisans are a big part of local economies (particularly in the territories); if artisans have better access to the Internet to promote their work, they can help stimulate those local economies, which are often quite fragile.

I’m not surprised that several big companies have told the CRTC that there’s no need for intervention from the government in this area. After all, if these big telecoms are suddenly on the hook to provide unprofitable services it becomes bad for the bottom line. They want to cherry pick who receives their best services, because they want to keep raking in the profits. And to me, that’s not playing nice.

What do you think, Techvibes readers? Is broadband service a right that rural Canadians are entitled to? Should government be involved? Sound off in the comments section.