REGINA – The CRTC’s decision to overhaul what it means to provide a basic telecommunications service to Canadians has SaskTel CEO Ron Styles worried.
The Commission’s policy announcement, made December 21st, is too vague and leaves open the possibilities of higher telecom rates for rural customers, lower profits and decreased investment, said the CEO. For example, while the Commission has said the existing $100 million subsidy to help serve high cost rural areas will be rolled into a new fund aimed at getting 50 Mbps downstream and 10 Mbps upstream to all Canadians, no matter where they live, it has not yet provided details of how this new fund will be divided.
“There are parts of this that don’t seem to be getting much attention and don’t seem to have been very well spelled out to people here in Saskatchewan,” said Styles. Right now, Saskatchewan gets between $16 million and $17 million of the existing fund per year – or 16% of the total for a province with just 1.1 million residents.
If SaskTel is faced with a per capita distribution of the new fund, which looks to cover capex and not opex, it may receive just about $4.5 million annually, a substantial drop. The CEO pointed to the fibre rollout its installing in Rosthern, a community of 2,500 about 45 minutes north of Saskatoon, noting that alone is costing $1.8 million (of a total annual fibre construction budget of $75 to $80 million). Losing $12 million or more of subsidies will slow the pace of change for the 100,000 rural households in high cost regions, in direct contrast to the broadband for everyone direction the CRTC is headed.
“It is a significant shift of funds out of rural Saskatchewan,” said Styles.
So, he is on the stump now, encouraging his customers to contact their MPs, MLAs, local councilors, whomever has a say, to make sure their rural voices are heard.
“We’ve already had people come forward from rural Saskatchewan who’ve asked us ‘how quickly will I be able to get 50 Mbps down and 10 Mbps up’?” recalled Styles of customers who believe 50-10 is mandatory and due to happen in just a few years.
“It’s paramount that the people who are going to be impacted by (new policy) understand what those impacts are so they can participate in the discussions and raise concerns,” he added. “Our concern is making sure there is transparency throughout this entire process.”
So, Styles wants an open, full conversation with Canadians and commissioners to properly fill out policy surrounding December’s CRTC directive – and he may be about to get it, too. CRTC vice-chair telecom Peter Menzies spoke to the members of the Canadian Association of Wireless Internet Service Providers (CanWISP)
“The fine details of the new fund still need to be worked out,” Menzies said Wednesday. “A follow-up proceeding will be initiated shortly to determine, among other things, the final eligibility and assessment criteria. I encourage you to take part in that process to help flesh out the details of the new broadband funding regime. It will be important that your views are taken into account in any final decisions.”
When it comes to those final decisions and what to do in terms of funding, Styles warned that while $750 million sounds like a lot of money ($150 million/year for 5 years), it really isn’t when judged against the telecom investments that are being made, or have to be made.
“If you were to give Saskatchewan the entire $750 million,” he said, “I don’t think we could completely cover all the small communities in Saskatchewan.”