- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
Canada has declared high-speed broadband internet access a “basic telecommunications service.” That means Ottawa will now work to provide accessible — and, presumably, affordable — internet to every Canadian citizen, just like it does for landline phones.
As part of the announcement Wednesday, Canadian national telecoms regulator CRTC has set new goals for download and upload speeds. Currently, roughly 18 percent of Canadians cannot surf the web as quickly as they want, or as the government dictates they should be able to. And so the Canadian government is investing 750 million Canadian dollars into CRTC infrastructure in rural areas so that, by 2021, 90 percent of Canadians will have access to the new speeds.
Of course, it is still to be seen if Canada can achieve that goal. But the point is that the goal has been set, and the great white north can now start working toward it.
Canada is not the first country to declare internet access a right — Finland made broadband a legal right back in 2010. But even the United States, while not known for the progressivism of Finland or Canada, has recognized the importance of access to contemporary communications.
“In the United States, universal service has been an explicit goal of telecommunications law for decades,” Josh Stager, policy counsel and government affairs lead at the Open Technology Institute, said in an email to Foreign Policy. “Congress enshrined that goal into federal law in the 1930s, and the FCC has been working to achieve that goal for internet access.”
During his time in office, U.S. President Barack Obama pushed for more broadband access for lower income communities. In 2015, he announced a pilot program to bring 28 communities of people in public or assisted housing online.
Nevertheless, there remains a fundamental difference between expanding internet access and recognizing it as a human right that the government has a fundamental responsibility to provide. And the gap between those two poles in the United States is widening, according to Stager, not closing.
“The private sector isn’t going to close the digital divide in the U.S,” he said. “It’s going to require some degree of government support, similar to the rural electrification effort a century ago.”
Indeed, recognition of this reality was part of the reasoning for Canada’s legislative change. But the United States is unlikely to take its cue from Canada on this issue, Stager said.
“Unfortunately, President-elect Trump has appointed people to his transition team who have advocated for all but abolishing the FCC,” Stager said. “The incoming administration has shown no concern for the digital divide and appears to be more focused on hobbling the one agency that is empowered to fix it.”
“Canada,” he concluded, “is fortunate to have a government that has its priorities straight.”
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