In January 2021, the City of Toronto announced a sweeping new initiative to improve internet access for its 3 million residents. By building a city-owned broadband network, the program called To connect to would give low-income residents struggling with high prices and slow internet speeds an affordable option. The proposal, received favorably by local community groups and internet access advocates, was passed by city council less than a month later, in February 2021.
Now, barely a year later, the plan for municipal broadband in Toronto is about to be released.
Toronto City Council is being encouraged by city staff tech experts to drop recommendations to sue a city-owned network as it reviews ConnectTO’s progress at an upcoming May 4 meeting. The Toronto network would have been one of the first municipal broadband services in North America to serve a large urban population where cables, towers and other infrastructure for broadband exist, but the cost prohibits it from everyone to access it.
the Toronto Star reports that this decision comes after a lobbying campaign by two of Canada’s largest telecommunications companies. Private sector companies argued that the city would struggle to build its own broadband network and could better allocate funds to subsidize existing internet services for low-income residents.
Toronto’s decision marks a major setback for what would have been one of the city’s biggest efforts to establish broadband services. If it fails, it raises questions about how local governments can ensure high-speed internet access, an essential service for many workers in the modern economy.
Toronto’s plan for city-owned broadband
Toronto’s goal was not to create a new internet service provider from scratch, but rather to build on the city’s existing assets to create a more affordable internet option for some residents. With monthly broadband charges as high as $100, the cost kept many residents from accessing essential internet services.
Since the city already has a hard-wired fiber network for city operations and services such as transit and traffic management, ConnectTO was designed as a way to create more connections to this network, while s partnering with a private sector ISP to deliver Internet to people’s homes, especially in underserved areas of the city. People would still pay for their Internet service, but the revenue generated would be used to reduce the Internet bills of those who could least afford it. The designers of ConnectTO were careful to point out that it is not its own ISP intended to limit competition between existing providers, but a way to expand the existing network to “fill… internet connectivity shortcomings.
But city staff have now removed the recommendation that the city “approve the proposed establishment of a city-owned high-speed municipal broadband network,” which would eventually be used to power city facilities and services. city. and “to help ensure equitable access to high-speed internet for residents, regardless of their financial means or circumstances”.
A city representative insisted that ConnectTO will continue and that the city will focus on improving the city’s existing broadband network and building additional capacity. But without a mandate to work with ISPs to use city-owned assets to provide affordable broadband, the centerpiece of the policy has been gutted, at least in the eyes of a community justice organization who defended him.
Telecommunications giants Bell Canada and Rogers Communications firms have lobbied city officials, particularly members of the executive committee, the board of directors within city council that sets its priorities. In a letter At committee, a Bell representative insisted that a city-owned broadband network was not necessary, saying it would “duplicate” existing infrastructure, and questioned the capacity of the city to offer both high-speed and low-cost Internet. The letter also pointed out that the city’s tender for partners had not received any bids.
Members of the executive committee appeared to question the viability of the city plan, although at least one member told the Toronto Star that his doubts were not based on the information he had received from Bell.
Chattanooga’s Path to the Municipal Internet
Local governments, especially in rural areas, have taken the initiative to build their own broadband networks, with broadband internet now seen as a essential part of the infrastructure over the past two decades. But they have faced an uphill battle from regulators and private companies seeking to curb competition.
North American cities that have attempted to deploy their own broadband networks have faced opposition from telecommunications companies, as well as state governments who, at the behest of telecommunications companies, have restricted government capacity locals to manage their own networks. Such restrictions exist in at least 18 US states.
But a few places have managed to build themselves despite these obstacles. Chattanooga, Tennessee is the most successful example of a municipal broadband network. The city of 180,000 has built its own fiber optic network operated by its electric utility commission. Despite lawsuits from Comcast and AT&T, Chattanooga built its own high-speed Internet network. In 2021, it served more than 120,000 homes with a broadband speed of 300 megabits per second (compared to a American average of approximately 150 Mbps) In the decade since its inception, Chattanooga Municipal Broadband has created $2.69 billion (pdf) in “community benefit”, while also posing a viable solution competition to private ISPs in the region. The municipal service is able to offer faster speeds at lower prices than private competitors.
For big cities like Toronto, where the main barrier to broadband for many people is not connectivity but cost, going with the ISP to offer an alternative service can be a riskier bet. Bell suggested that city resources would be better spent on grant programs to help people pay their internet bills rather than reducing overall costs.
City officials said they are now focusing on ConnectTO to improve connections within the city’s existing broadband network and expand access to free public wifi in public spaces such as libraries and community centers. . Such measures will certainly improve broadband access, but lower prices may not occur unless the city can encourage greater competition among the small number of for-profit companies that dominate the broadband market. broadband in Toronto.