Reshuffling the ConnectTO Deck
Follow the Money. The Other Money. Our Money. And Assets.
I saw a flurry of activity on twitter yesterday in response to David Rider’s piece on the program in the Toronto Star: “City to pull the plug on plan for cheap, fast internet for low-income Torontonians”. The piece notes that the City has deleted two key recommendations from the ConnectTO staff report in preparation for the vote tomorrow. It was good to see the attention and reactions online. It’s encouraging to know that residents want to see action on internet equity. We’re going to have to keep up the pressure for a while yet.
Here are the two key recommendations that got deleted from the staff report, in italics, emphasis mine:
1. City Council endorse the proposed creation of a City-owned high-speed Municipal Broadband Network (MBN) that will, in the long term, a) support municipal services; b) connect City-owned facilities and assets; c) be accessible for Internet Service Providers (ISPs); and d) help ensure equitable access to broadband internet for residents regardless of their financial means or circumstances;
2. City Council direct the Chief Technology Officer, supported by the Chief Engineering & Executive Director, Engineering & Construction Services, the General Manager, Transportation Services, the General Manager, Toronto Water, the Executive Director, Corporate Real Estate Management, and appropriate staff in other Divisions as required, to centralize and administer the deployment and management of City-owned fibre broadband infrastructure;
ConnectTO, the City Budget, and Political Wordplay
To build out from here, we need to look at these deletions *and* we need to look at the city budget. When City staff brought ConnectTO to Executive Committee in March, they asked the committee to “endorse the proposed creation….” of a municipal broadband network, and to centralize and administer city assets. That endorsement, and that direction, even if it was left in and attained, isn’t that big a deal. Why? Because funding.
The amount of money staff were asking for in March, also known as financial impact? None. In italics, from the March 16 2022 staff report, before the deletions, emphasis mine:
“There is no financial impact. Required funding of $725,000 for the tasks planned for 2022 is included in the Council Approved 2022 Capital Budget for Technology Services Division under WBS CIT047–14. Any additional resources required for additional phases will be included in future Capital and/or Operating Budget submissions for approval.”
The amount of money staff are asking for in the latest version of the report, the one with the deletions of the key recommendations? Still none. In italics, from the April 26 2022 staff report, after the deletions, emphasis mine:
“There is no financial impact. Any additional resources required for additional phases will be included in future Capital and/or Operating Budget submissions for approval. The Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer has reviewed this report and agrees with the financial impact information.”
I’m not sure why the $725,000 number went away between the reports (I’m asking that now, will add an update if/when I get an answer — got an answer, update below). But as noted in the first report, the money cited for use on this program was from the already approved capital budget.
Whether that money can still be used or whether it can’t be used for this program is immaterial. It was never a meaningful amount in the first place. It was never the amount needed to make this program actually happen, it was more of a step along the way for staffing and other expertise. Most of the work on this program, it is passes tomorrow, will likely continue on within existing staff salaries. We’ll return to that future work in a moment, but before we do, let’s zoom out for a moment.
UPDATE: the $725,000 is indeed still allocated to the program in the capital budget. The reason it is not mentioned in the report above is because that report is a supplementary report. It’s like an expansion on the first one. So the money still stands. This money is allocated to things that will help fund the program coming to life, in terms of staffing and expertise, but not actual service delivery. Yet.
The Telecommunications Industry Power Problem is Real
I’m relatively new to understanding the history and legal dynamics at play regarding internet access, the telecommunications industry, and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (the CRTC). What I do know is that we’re dealing with deeply entrenched and dysfunctional power dynamics at the federal level. Some of that (a lot?) has to do with the fact that the telecommunications companies own many of the physical assets used to create internet access. We allow their ownership of those assets to give them the right to define how internet service provision works, and more importantly, how much it costs. This could be changed, but the CRTC has shown little interest in asserting public power in this realm.
These power dynamics are not news to anyone trying to set up a program in the internet access space, the Toronto public service included. These power issues did not appear between March and May of this year. So it’s helpful to read a bit more between the lines to consider how the City is trying to navigate this deeply dysfunctional terrain.
Cities coast to coast are scared of getting into any kind of a turf war with the telecommunications companies. That Bell took the time to write committee this letter , in the face of such a tiny investment in a long-term project, speaks volumes. Whether or not that letter existed, the issue of the telecommunications industry’s dominance and desire to maintain position puts a chill on policy speech. This is not specific to Toronto.
If we reorganize our thinking about the deletions in the staff report, we can consider them another way. Staff realized that those words, and that long-term goal as stated, was not going to fly because of how it could be interpreted, and misinterpreted, despite the nothing of the budget. So rather than get into a fight about words, they pulled the words that were causing friction in March in order to keep trying to think about what to do about the affordability problem for internet in Toronto. That remains the same and is just as possible with this new report as it was with the old one.
Affordability, as ACORN’s long and hard work on their Internet for All campaign has been explaining since day one, is the reason ConnectTO matters. While there are federal programs to address this issue, these programs don’t reach everyone, as ACORN spelled out in this recent oped in the Hill Times. As the deep research on the ConnectTO program showed, people are left out from internet access as things stand today. The stories that ACORN’s members have shared include people deciding to pay for internet before they pay for food. Kids trying and struggling to do school from home. Seniors and others needing social contact. Internet for life reasons. These issues matter before, during, and after the pandemic.
Learning to Talk About Internet Access Differently
If you watched the March 30, 2022 executive committee meeting you can see the communications nightmare this policy topic is. When you start with diagrams of physical assets, people of course (councillors included) get hung up on them. Looking at capital infrastructure creates the idea that this program will open the door to major investments and service provision costs. In Toronto, however, we are not, for the most part, dealing with the need for a lot of net new infrastructure. I’m not saying none, I’m just not saying tonnes. We don’t have the rural and northern issues related to physical digital divides so we need to be careful not to inherit those narratives. What we do have is service gaps. Affordability problems. These have to do with the business model of how the physical assets are used.
The telecommunications industry wants and is allowed to make a certain amount of money from each customer to service and maintain their infrastructure. The City’s ConnectTO program has always been about looking at different models that complement that (majorly problematic) status quo. The City can’t compete with the telecommunications companies. It was never trying to. I’m sure everyone, city staff first and foremost, have learned about the challenges in describing what is not yet done in exploring alternative models.
This project is such a good example of the work of democracy today. All the work that’s left is hard, the approaches aren’t absolutes. In this case, if the program passes tomorrow, as is, staff will still be able to think and continue work on this in the years ahead. And more importantly, we won’t have to start from scratch in our public advocacy to support this program as it evolves. Both in words, and eventually, in budget. A bit more on what this program could look like to close.
Doing Differently with Public Money and Public Assets
We have a municipal election in October. Should this program still pass, we might have a new councillor(s) that wants to take this issue on. Hell, we might even see councillors put this item in their platform. There is nothing stopping us from working on the other side of the election to figure out what we want the City to do with this program, finding supporters, and bringing new motions to keep the work going.
City staff aren’t going to be able to carry anything with a price tag without major public intervention and support in the years ahead. This motion, whether March or May, was not that. Would it have been nice to have those recommendations left in? Absolutely. But would that have guaranteed any kind of an outcome in future council sessions? No, not at all.
This is a chance to regroup on the matter and think strategically about what to do, and how to package it, so that it’s palatable and clear in its intent to councillors across the spectrum. If we can work together on leveraging what we already own, in terms of physical assets like fibre and other infrastructure, towards better outcomes for residents, let’s figure it out. If cities need to band together to push at the CRTC, let’s figure it out. If we can build and borrow capacity to support project like Mesh networks, let’s figure it out. We can all continue to build on the years — decades now — of advocacy work and research to do better locally on internet equity. A lot of it is governance work, which means conversations and convening and making spaces to do so.
The Dangers of Doing Policy as Public Relations
A final note on this matter, which is a good lesson for everyone involved, is the danger of doing policy as public relations. There was one major incident that occurred in the past year in relation to ConnectTO — a procurement effort. The City put out a tender to see if they could attract any partners to join them in exploring alternative business models for equitable access. There were no bids. What is happening in Toronto is market failure. Trying to dress that up in a program without attaching funds to it has been one lap of confusion that got the City a lot of good press before it had more of its plans in hand.
ConnectTO is and always was aspirational. It’s a work in progress and it’s going to benefit from more, and more frequent, open conversations with community, with other cities, and beyond. It’s good to try things, and it’s good to stop if they’re not working. This program has not tried for long enough yet. If it survives the vote, it’s a success because we can keep on trying. And after the election, we have to pick up on it again. As we were always going to have to do. This problem and program is a long-haul.