Canada should match U.S. in broadband speed regulations

We’re both big countries, but let’s aim just as high as our neighbours so we can keep progressing

In 2011, Canada’s communications regulator, the CRTC, put forth its recommended guidelines for the minimum speed of broadband Internet. To accommodate “a single user to stream higher-quality audio and video” and “to participate in video conferencing at reasonable quality” with online health consultation in mind, the CRTC’s committee recommended 5 mbps download speed and 1 mbps upload speed. That’s fast enough to download an MP3 in about seven seconds and upload one in 35 seconds. But MP3s aren’t really the benchmark, these days – instead, we look at whole albums, Netflix stream quality and how fast YouTube loads (which, it turns out, is slow for entirely different reasons).

On Monday, Feb. 2, the U.S.’ regulator, the FCC, put forth a recommendation that all broadband connections should provide at least 25 mbps download speed and 3 mbps upload speed.

In terms of connection speed, however, the U.S. and Canada are nearly identical, at least according to survey data by Akamai, a large cloud services provider that boasts one of the largest content delivery networks in the world. In its quarterly state of the Internet report, it puts Canada just behind the United States in average connection speed at 9.7 mbps to the U.S. figure of 10.5 mbps. The figures are also similar in percentage of connections above 10 mbps, at 32 per cent for Canada and 36 per cent for the States.

Although the populations differ by an order of magnitude, it makes sense to me to compare the two countries. Both developed at roughly the same time, saw similar infrastructure booms long ago and have groups of people scattered across the entire North American continent.

So now, where we really differ, is our goal. The FCC’s new broadband benchmark might seem lofty to some, but a 25 mbps minimum speed is really just a somewhat future-proof assertion. We already have high-speed offerings in Canada that quadruple the new U.S. minimum (although they’re only available in major centres), but that’s not what this is about. High-speed accessibility is room to breathe for software developers and new services. Unless the doctor shortage goes away soon, the trend towards “virtual house calls” by Canadian doctors is likely to only increase, but how long will that last if broadband can’t keep up?

Another place where Canada and the U.S. differ is the CRTC’s adoption of what is known as net neutrality – the idea that ISPs should not provide faster lanes of service to companies and content providers who can pay for it. The regulator’s position was hardened late last week when it declared that Bell could offer unlimited streaming of its own broadcast networks while charging for usage on others.

I usually hate it when Canadian legislation or regulation follows the United States so closely, as if we’re always taking cues from south of the border, but in this instance, let’s follow their lead, or aim even higher.

With technological progress, there’s always a bottleneck. There’s always that one thing that can’t quite keep up with the rest of the system. We owe it to ourselves, though, to make sure that our Internet infrastructure is not that one thing.