Looking at who, not just where

For the first time in recent memory, the Federal Budget [pdf, 2.6MB] released yesterday looks at measures to increase adoption of internet services. Typically, the government has allocated money toward stimulus of rural and remote broadband, without considering the more significant challenge of increasing the demand side in urban and rural communities.

Open Media was quick to criticize the lack of additional funding, “It’s a real letdown to see the government discuss innovation without any new funding commitment for Internet infrastructure, despite the CRTC’s historic ruling in December that every Canadian should have affordable, reliable Internet access.” However, the budget maintains the $500M in support for rural internet infrastructure announced last year, the vast majority of which is set for spending beginning in the 2018-19 fiscal year. In addition, the CRTC established its own rural internet support programme, setting up $750M in new funding, so it is difficult to see how the Federal Government could have responsibly gone beyond its current level of commitment.

I have said before, what is needed most from Ottawa doesn’t take money, we needs leadership. Yesterday’s Budget is promising from the perspective of starting to say the right things and starting to send the right signals.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Canada is tied for 8th out of 75 countries in terms of Internet inclusivity. Canada does particularly well on measures of Internet affordability—ranking first overall. Canada is also successful in terms of Internet quality and availability and in terms of having local and relevant Internet content. An area where Canada can improve, however, is by addressing digital divides that result in some Canadians being underserved by the digital economy. The Digital Literacy Exchange and Accessible Technology Development programs proposed in Budget 2017 will enable Canada to make progress in this important area.

An entire section of the Budget is entitled “Making Home Internet Access More Affordable for Low-Income Families”

Since 2008, the pages of this blog have been calling for government leadership to promote low income options for internet service and home computers. Income verification has been among the biggest challenges for service providers that wanted to offer a discounted service to low income households. Up until now, the Federal Government was unwilling to help, leading service providers to work with provincial and municipal agencies to identify qualifying households. The Budget represents the first time the Federal government has acknowledged its role in promoting such solutions.

Access to the Internet opens up a world of opportunities—from social connections with friends and family to new ways to learn and work. Most Canadians are already online, but many low-income families face financial barriers to access, such as the cost of purchasing a computer and the high cost of an Internet connection at home.

Budget 2017 proposes to invest $13.2 million over five years, starting in 2017–18, in a new Affordable Access program, which will help service providers offer lowcost home Internet packages to interested low-income families.

As the cost of computer hardware is also a barrier for some families, a target of 50,000 computers refurbished through the existing Computers for Success Canada program will also be distributed to families, along with the low-cost Internet packages.

In October, I wrote “Building a broadband research agenda,” calling for “serious research into why people don’t subscribe to broadband.” The budget has allocated $5M to begin the process.

To better understand how Canadians use digital technology, Budget 2017 also proposes to allocate $5 million over five years, starting in 2017–18, for Statistics Canada and private sector-led surveys on the impact of digital technology in Canada.

The Budget also promises “to review and modernize the Broadcasting Act and Telecommunications Act.”

In this review, the Government will look to examine issues such as telecommunications and Canadian content creation. Further details on the review will be announced in the coming months. s review, the Government will look to examine issues such as telecommunications and content creation in the digital age, net neutrality and cultural diversity, and how to strengthen the future of Canadian media and Canadian content creation. Further details on the review will be announced in the coming months.

I have written before that Canada is long overdue for a review of digital policy matters. Recall that the Telecom Policy Review panel called for a fresh look every 5 years. That was in 2006.

I try to be a “glass half-full” kind of guy, tainted with a healthy measure of cynicism. Canada’s telecom policy has been drifting aimlessly for more than a decade, with random measures introduced into legislation absent a cohesive digital strategy. In other posts, I have suggested that Ottawa has delivered “Inconsistent messages; predictable turmoil.” But I am optimistic that a new review of legislation will provide the opportunity for a fresh start.

A year ago, I wrote “Overdue for digital leadership.” Are we now getting onto the right track?

As I have suggested before: Set clear objectives; Align activities with the achievement of those objectives; Stop doing things that are contrary to the objectives.

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