OTTAWA - Internet affordability is a looming issue, as great as housing, food and other rising costs, an Ottawa conference was told on Tuesday. The Canadian chapter of the Internet Society held an all-day session on digital access. One of the afternoon panels looked at the topic of affordability. The panel was moderated by The Wire Report’s deputy editor Jenna Cocullo. “The landscape on affordability is bleak,” Geoff White, executive director of the Competitive Network Operators of Canada (CNOC) told delegates. Questions of access and affordability affect all Canadians, he added. He repeatedly lambasted the CRTC for a lack of regulation and failure to consult with stakeholders. The market for wholesalers is shrinking, he pointed out. In the past few months, three of his member companies have been snapped up by incumbents. BCE Inc. bought EBox and is in the process of purchasing Distributel; Quebecor Inc. has taken over VMedia. Bell plans to fold EBox into Distributel once that sale is complete. Yuka Sai, staff lawyer at the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), said these days connectivity is essential. “You can’t get very far without internet,” she stated. She compared wholesale rates over the years. In 2016 the incumbents were charging competitors $80.82 to connect to their networks. In 2019 that fell to $66.71. But now it has crept back up to $85.96, Said said. The vice president of policy and communications for Beanfield Technologies Inc. said access often depends on location. Todd Hofley said that users in downtown Toronto have a high connectivity rate and lower prices for internet access. But that access becomes more difficult in the suburbs. “It’s like going back 20 or 30 years,” he stated. The situation is only going to get worse, he added. He repeated many of the warnings Beanfield made at last week’s Canadian Telecom Summit. All the panelists had limited praise for the federal government’s Connecting Families Initiative that was announced last spring. Under the program, low-income families and seniors can get internet access for $20 per month. Sai lamented the program does not make more people eligible for the subsidy. She questioned why internet service providers have to volunteer for the initiative rather than be mandated into it. Currently 14 ISPs have signed up to participate. “There are gaps in the program,” she said. “It’s not a true affordability subsidy.” White asserted it was only half of a half measure by the government, a “quarter measure” he called it. Users are locked into a plan with an ISP, he stated. Hofley revealed his company has come up with its own affordability plan for low income families. Under the Beanfield program, service that usually costs $50 is made available to eligible people for $20. The trio thanked the Internet Society for bringing serious issues to the fore. The message needs to be spread further. “You know who’s not having this conversation?” White asked. “The CRTC.” Competition is being suffocated under the current regulatory regime, he continued. He said he hopes the new CRTC chair will get the message. The government has not indicated when it will replace retiring chair Ian Scott. Hofley lamented the slowness of CRTC rulings. Beanfield will file applications for relief and it can take months or years to get a verdict, he stated. White worries about the future of competition in this country. "If Shaw falls to Rogers, Telus falls to Bell, we're going to be back to two regional monopolies, and monopoly-like regulation will be called for," White said. –Reporting by Paul Park at firstname.lastname@example.org and editing by Michael Lee-Murphy at email@example.com CORRECTION: A quote from Geoff White has been corrected.