It sounds like a small difference. But Canada hopes it will have a big impact, ranging from lowering the cost of Internet access to consumers to generating more market competition. And how it plays out will offer some important lessons for the United States, where the idea has been hugely controversial.
"Large incumbent companies will now have to make their fibre facilities available to their competitors," said Canada's top telecom regulator, the CRTC, in a statement last week. "This measure will ensure that Canadians have more choice for high-speed Internet services and are able to fully leverage the benefits of the broadband home or business."
Forcing Internet providers to offer their pipes to competitors is a practice known as "unbundling," and proponents believe it addresses many of the problems that consumers often complain about when it comes to their Internet service. So, should you be for unbundling, or against it?
The really hard thing about providing Internet is that it's costly to build the infrastructure, particularly when it comes to next-generation fiber optic cables. The high cost of building Internet access is what often leads to a lack of competition, with only one or two providers in a given area.
Canada's new policy on fiber optics, which will be rolled out first in Ontario and Quebec, means that pretty much anyone who wants to start an Internet provider can, just by tapping into the lines that are already there. Because those businesses don't have to spend money on construction, the theory goes, they'll be able to offer lower prices.
We've seen evidence of this in Europe, which has had unbundling in place for years. In Paris you can buy a 95 megabit-per-second connection for around $25 — all without having to tack on a TV or phone package. To American eyes, these are refreshing figures. For about twice as much money, New Yorkers can enjoy Internet speeds that are a full six times slower, according to the New America Foundation.
Although the United States once flirted with unbundling Internet services, the idea got dropped. Large Internet providers argued that if they're undercut by upstarts that don't have to invest in infrastructure, then nobody will build new infrastructure and connection technologies anymore. And in Europe we can see evidence of that too, where copper-based DSL remains a dominant technology, even though many industry analysts believe next-generation fiber optic networks are the future. They can handle more data at faster speeds, enabling new and different uses of the Internet.
"We now have an interesting experiment between the Canadian and American markets," said Blair Levin, a Brookings Institution scholar who helped author a federal broadband plan for the Federal Communications Commission. "I would take the American side of the bet, but it will be interesting to study."