Patty Coates’ remarks at ONDP telecom hearings:

Good morning, chairperson and fellow participants.

My name is Patty Coates and I am the President of the Ontario Federation of Labour. The OFL is the largest provincial labour federation in Canada. It represents 54 unions and one million workers.

I am pleased to join this hearing today because it addresses an urgent cost-of-living issue that affects all Ontarians: access to high-speed Internet and reliable cell phone service.

In today’s economy, all workers need affordable and reliable access to the Internet and to cell phone service, no matter where they live or their field of work. It has become an essential service for education, health care, information, safety and security, not to mention day-to-day communication with co-workers, family, and friends.

During the pandemic, it allowed so many aspects of our lives to continue when we could no longer gather in public together, and helped close the gap between so many regions of our province.

Indeed, I am joining you here today virtually, but only because I have a reliable Internet that allows for my uninterrupted participation in this discussion.

Unfortunately, too many Ontarians lack access to this basic service. And some Ontarians are harder hit than others: those who live in Northern communities, rural parts of Ontario, or Indigenous communities, where service is spotty, intermittent, and unpredictable.

We need minimal standards, like we have for health care and other public services, that would guarantee a similar high standard in every part of the province, no matter where anyone lives.

Likewise, we need the same kind of affordable and reliable access to cell phone service, without being gouged by the cell phone and Internet providers–all private communications giants who consistently put their profits ahead of our needs.

As has already been noted, Ontarians (and Canadians in general) pay among the highest cell phone bills in the world. This is completely unacceptable, especially in the midst of a worsening cost-of living crisis. The needs of workers and their families to use these services shouldn’t be a reason to guarantee massive, record-breaking profits for the telecommunications corporations.

The opposite is true: high quality, affordable, and reliable Internet access and cell phone service should be–and could be–guaranteed by providing them through a wholly owned public service. Instead of a private, profit-making enterprise, which massively limits access and quality of service and massively inflates costs and waste, these essential services could be available more widely and at a fraction of the cost as a publicly-owned and -operated service.

When the very first electrical grids were introduced in jurisdictions across Canada, it largely required their organization and delivery through public means, in order to guarantee equal access and high quality of service to every user–and to create the optimal conditions for a thriving and competitive economy. In some cases, this public utility remains in public hands; in other instances, it has been privatized–and the predictable result has been high costs, less reliable service, and unequal access.

Just as the OFL calls for the public ownership, organization, and delivery of other services and utilities, from water to electricity to health care and education, we likewise support the same call for the Internet and telecommunications in Ontario. As long as profit-making is the central and near-exclusive impetus of Internet and cell phone service delivery, everything else will suffer: affordability, access, and reliability.

We therefore make the following recommendations: 

  1. Launch a study into the viability of providing Internet access and telecommunications as a public utility, based on existing labour-led research into the best practices in jurisdictions that have largely regulated, minimized, and/or eliminated the profit-making motive at the heart of these services; 
  2. Develop a legislative program that, in the interim, would re-regulate Internet and cell phone service delivery in Ontario and create minimal guaranteed standards, with an eye to rapidly improving access and quality in those regions and communities in Ontario that currently lack it; and 
  3. Create a consumers’ Bill of Rights with respect to telecommunications services that would clearly demonstrate to the public (and to the corporations) our shared expectations for affordable, accessible, and reliable Internet and cell phone service in every region of Ontario, which would form the basis of the provincial minimal standards that would be guaranteed in legislation.

These recommendations are not without precedent: they are based on actual and historical legislative successes in Ontario and other jurisdictions that have regulated and/or brought under public ownership and control those utilities that are central to the functioning of our economies, government, and communities.

We are grateful to the Official Opposition for raising this urgent, but far too long neglected issue. Because we rely so heavily on the Internet and cell phone service in our day-to-day lives, we sometimes lack the imagination that their organization and delivery could be any different than they are now, despite our growing frustrations about them.

But the unacceptable price-gouging and profit-making that Ontario consumers have experienced for far too long, not to mention unreliable, unaffordable, and unequal access, have now broken our willingness to accept the status quo.

We’re now saying: Enough is enough!

Let’s seize this opportunity to contemplate bold and ambitious solutions to this question, which could make life more affordable, reliable, and equitable for everyone in Ontario.

Thank you.