Bram Abramson to the 2023 Canada Rural & Remote Broadband Conference


North Bay, Ontario
May 9, 2023

Bram Abramson, Commissioner for Ontario
Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC)

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Thank you for your warm welcome and hospitality.

My thanks, especially, to the Anishinaabeg peoples for sharing their unceded traditional territories with us. I would like to pay respect to their Elders.

As those who follow our work will know, the CRTC shares in the genuine commitment to working towards reconciliation with Indigenous peoples based on the recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership. That means protecting and promoting Indigenous peoples’ inherent human rights to freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

Our view is that reconciliation includes all of us. It opens doors to productive and profitable new relationships that will yield long-term dividends in both the economic and societal sense. It has the potential to generate huge benefits both for the telecommunications sector and the public good. Close to half the projects the CRTC’s Broadband Fund has funded to date have been in First Nations and other Indigenous communities. Increased access to high-speed Internet is vital if Indigenous peoples and businesses are to become full partners in growing, prosperous and sustainable economies.

I was glad to see that the program put together for this conference addresses some of these issues head on. I look forward to dialogue around overcoming rural and remote broadband gaps in ways that complement one another.

I don’t need to tell this audience that the digital divide cuts deep across the urban, rural, and remote landscapes. Those gathered here represent Indigenous peoples and governments, municipal and provincial governments, service providers, equipment vendors, utilities, and more. You are aware of the problem, you have been doing the hard work required to address it, and many of you have accumulated insights, stories, frustrations, and victories along the way. So, I think the best thing I can do for you this morning is to try and help you think about ways the CRTC can help you, and how you can make best use of the CRTC, in our journey towards closing the gap.

To that end, I’m going to spend a few minutes talking about where the CRTC is at. Then I’ll talk about where we’re headed. Finally, I’ll speak about ways to make sure we’re headed in the right direction.

Where We’re At

As many of you know, where we’re at is something of a journey of discovery for me as well. Until a few months ago I was a legal and regulatory advisor to many independent and competitive telcos, many of whom were actively involved in bridging the digital divide.

In my new role as the Ontario regional Commissioner for the CRTC, I am in a better position to help advance this goal. But I am just one of the fresh faces at the Commission. Our Chairperson and our Vice-Chairs were appointed not long before I was. My colleagues have experience ranging from law and journalism to competition and spectrum policy, to provincial utilities regulation. And we’ve been handed a new policy direction – the formal mechanism by which the government can broadly guide the work of the CRTC.

One of the priorities that comes across clearly in that policy direction is to provide Canadians more opportunities to participate in our democracy, culture and economy, through improved connectivity. We are to consider how our decisions encourage all forms of competition, improve affordability and lower prices, and strengthen the rights of consumers.

The direction stresses the need for the CRTC to move more quickly and to rely on sound evidence in our decision making. It also directs us to ensure that affordable access to high-quality and reliable telecommunications services is available in all regions of Canada – including rural and remote areas and Indigenous communities.

Many of the issues wrapped up in getting us there are deep in the weeds. For instance, earlier this year, we set new timelines to help smaller competitors get faster access to large companies’ telephone poles, clarify responsibility for their maintenance, and provide competitors attaching to those poles the ability to perform many types of work themselves or through approved contractors.

Much of our work clearing barriers remains ongoing. We have long-standing workstreams on improving access to transport and on clarifying how we set regulatory costs. We have an open proceeding on competitive access to large incumbents’ last-mile fibre. We recently held live hearings in Whitehorse as part of our broad-ranging proceeding on improving telecommunications services in Canada’s North.

Another important part of that work has been the Broadband Fund. It reflects a fundamental shift in how we support access to basic telecommunications services. In 2016, and continuing into 2018 and 2019, we redefined basic telecom services to include access, not just to the phone network, but to Internet over broadband. To that end, we established a Universal Service Objective with two components.

The first was residential access to those basic services at 50/10 speeds, 50 millisecond latency, and no more than 5 millisecond jitter or .25 percent packet loss, as measured from customers’ premises to Internet exchange points in Tier 1 Canadian cities. The second was the latest mobile wireless technologies from homes, from businesses, and along major roadways.

The Broadband Fund looks very different than the local telephone service subsidy program that preceded it. It is not restricted to incumbent telcos. It has focused on capital funding. And it not only complements our regulatory work on barriers to network deployment: it also complements other funding programs, like those operated by federal, provincial, and territorial authorities.

The deadline for submissions for the Broadband Fund’s third call has been extended to May 16th, a week from today. It emphasizes projects that:

  • build or upgrade transport infrastructure;
  • build or upgrade mobile wireless infrastructure to improve mobile connectivity along major roads; or
  • increase satellite transport capacity (operational costs) in satellite‑dependent communities.

At the same time, we have also launched a policy review of the Broadband Fund. So let me tell you a little bit about where we’re headed.

Where We’re Headed

We are proud of our progress in transitioning from a local service subsidy program for the Public Switched Telephone Network era, to a Broadband Fund for the world of the open Internet. The Fund is helping pay for hard work being done to improve access to more than 200 rural and remote communities, including 89 Indigenous communities. As a funding program nested inside an independent administrative tribunal, it is marked by a high level of transparency and accountability.

At the same time, we are clear that our industry-funded Broadband Fund is married to our own regulatory work, and is a small portion of the overall funding landscape. As the Broadband Fund evolves, we will continue to check in to make sure it is appropriately scoped and plays the right role in our sector.

To that end, our Broadband Fund Policy Review has five main components:

  • a review of the Fund’s objectives;
  • reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, including an Indigenous-specific funding stream;
  • expanding the scope of funding to include operations and to look how mobile road coverage and satellite-dependent communities;
  • our framework for funding capital projects, with an emphasis on finding new efficiencies; and
  • the amounts we collect from telecom carriers to fund the Broadband Fund.

Our preliminary view is that it’s time to broaden the Fund’s objective in ways that go beyond our universal service objective or a focus on capital funding. Our preliminary view is that our objective should expand to embrace access to basic services that are affordable and reliable.

Supporting projects that bring telecom service to Indigenous communities and economic and social benefits more broadly, through an Indigenous-only funding stream, is a good example of that broader objective.

Indigenous communities have expressed the clear desire to lead or partner in building, owning, and operating the networks serving their communities. We are seeking guidance on how to support Indigenous communities in a range of settings, how to reach out to these communities, and the kinds of benefits we can support.

We’re also looking at expanding the scope of what we fund, especially given the changing landscape of the other programs out there. So, we’re asking questions that I know will interest many of those in this room today.

For instance, if we provide operational funding, what does that look like, and what is the relationship between capital and operational funding? How do we ensure that lower pricing is maintained? How do we adjust our financial viability criteria to reflect this kind of funding?

How do measure transport projects—for instance, is two kilometres from a community the right distance? If we begin supporting geographic redundancy, how do we make sure that we’re genuinely improving resiliency, but only where transport really needs funding?

Are we taking the right approach on costs for serving major transport roads, for funding the right satellite technologies, or for measuring comparable pricing for urban and rural areas? Are there areas where even access to current speed objectives isn’t enough, because unlimited plans aren’t readily available?

Finally, we are looking at a range of ways to streamline our processes, including the eligibility, assessment, and technical merit criteria to be met.
We know the existing process can be demanding for smaller service providers. We want to make it faster and easier.

Steering in the Right Direction

And that is, in many ways, where I hope you will come in.

I’ve outlined some of the regulatory work we’re doing to remove barriers to access and to deployment. I’ve outlined the Policy Review that is underway and how it will implement what we’ve learned and what we’ve observed, including how our Broadband Fund responds to changes in the broader funding environment.

But I’ve also talked about how the CRTC functions as an administrative agency with accountable, transparent procedures and the obligation to make decisions based on evidence.

What that means is that even the best or most creative or most obvious ideas in the world need to find their way to the written record of our proceeding if I am going to be able to vote for them.

Our Policy Review poses 47 different questions about the topics we’ve discussed. Everyone in this room will have thoughts, anecdotes, opinions about one, or maybe even more than one, of them. Putting the relevant parts of your stories, views, and lived experiences on the record is what lets us make changes to reflect them.

Now, everyone in this room is also busy. We are respectful of your time as well as your work. But many of you are members of industry or trade associations. You are experienced at grant applications. You are good at corresponding with town councils, suppliers, and many others. And the way to put the CRTC to work solving your problems is to put those skills to work establishing them on the record of a proceeding like our Broadband Fund Policy Review. So, I am asking you to include in your work the process of closing the feedback loop by stating for the record which way you think we should go on the items canvassed by our notice of consultation 2023-89, many of which I have highlighted for you today.

You will be able to file your reasons right through to July 21st, and then respond to what others have argued or documented by September 19th. If you search on the CRTC’s website for notice of consultation 2023-89, that should get you to the right place. Whether you’re a small service provider with a story to tell about how to close gaps and streamline what we do; an equipment vendor with something to say about how we should treat the costs of replacement equipment; or a municipal counsellor with a message about how we should determine that subsidized service plans are reasonably priced, please do make your views part of the record that we will have before us as we make a decision on our proposed approach to implementing an Indigenous funding stream, making operational funding available, streamlining our processes, and everything else set out in that notice, some of which I have described for you this morning.


Likewise, and more broadly -- if there are CRTC issues that go beyond the scope of a proceeding, like general trends and directions in your sector, your region, or your community that we should know about, please know that we are here for it. I am the Regional Commissioner for Ontario. My colleagues have regional roles that cover the breadth of what is now called Canada. We do our job best when we are hearing a broad range of views.

So please do reach out. Our operators are, quite literally, standing by. I look forward to working together with you.


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