Mark Goldberg

Bold, visionary, decisive & inclusive

Connecting Canadians was the name of a $305M federal government program in 2014 that promised to “provide 98 percent of Canadian households in rural and remote regions of Canada with greater access to broadband Internet”.

At the time, Industry Minister James Moore said:

As we move toward Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017, our government is proud to launch a new program that will connect 280,000 Canadian households to high-speed Internet. Connecting Canadians is about ensuring that Canadians, whether they live in urban centres or remote regions of the country, have access to the latest wireless technologies and high-speed networks at the most affordable prices possible.

Despite this bold statement, there really was nothing in the “new program” that did anything to ensure Canadians in urban centres would “have access to the latest wireless technologies and high-speed networks at the most affordable prices possible.”

Like federal and provincial government programs that preceded Connecting Canadians and those that have followed it, funding has been provided to extend networks to rural and remote areas. This is an important role for the federal government, but it is not enough to achieve the objective of ensuring that all Canadians have affordable access to the latest wireless technologies and high-speed networks.

Greg O’Brien wrote an important commentary yesterday on, “$200 million for 5G. Still zero million for those who can’t afford any G.”

How many don’t have milk in their fridge – or don’t have a fridge, let alone a smart one? How many people who live in Canadian cities and don’t worry about parking their self-driving cars because they can’t afford one – and who will never read the news about 5G – or much of any news – because they can’t afford internet access?

And then that made us wonder why three different governments can each find $67 million to help fund something that doesn’t really need additional public help – but none of them can figure out a way to build a program to get broadband access and devices to those who can’t afford them.

I have been writing about this theme for much too long, as I describe in “An affordable broadband strategy.”

For a decade, I have suggested that an affordable broadband strategy may need more in the way of government leadership and not as much in the way of funding. We need more research to better understand the digital divide. That may merit creating and coordinating a broadband research agenda to better understand the factors that are keeping 1 in 6 Canadian households from subscribing to a broadband connection.

As I wrote last year, the March 2017 Federal budget held out promise that the government was finally starting to look at “who” needed broadband assistance, not just “where”. A year later, we have not yet seen the outcome that work.

The WEF suggests “encouraging experimentation with flexible approaches and removing regulatory or other obstacles may be an effective way forward, in addition to revising tax policies and providing direct subsidies.”

Over the past 2 years, some ‘obstacles’ have been imposed in Canada that could conflict with an environment that should encourage such experimentation, as described in “Connecting the unconnected.” for example, the World Economic Forum writes “Some have questioned zero-rated services on the belief that such services run counter to net neutrality. Others point out that some access is better than no access at all, even if users cannot choose which apps and services are ‘free’.”

Are regulatory decisions being guided by clear and transparent policy directions?

The Executive Summary of the report from The National Broadband Task Force (established in January 2001) stated “The principal mandate of the Task Force was to map out a strategy for achieving the Government of Canada’s goal of ensuring that broadband services are available to businesses and residents in every Canadian community by 2004.” The report holds up well considering it was completed more than a decade and a half ago.

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. The report from the Telecom Policy Review Panel was released 5 years after the report from the National Broadband Task Force. That was 2006.

In the recent budget, I didn’t notice funding for a review panel.

Earlier this week, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains observed “Technology is changing the way we live, work and engage with one another, and we are in a global innovation race. To prepare for the future, we must be bold, visionary and decisive.”

We also need to be inclusive. One in six Canadian households still don’t have a connected computer.

To win the ‘global innovation race’ we need to ensure that all Canadians have an opportunity to participate.

3 comments to Bold, visionary, decisive & inclusive

  • Smith

    • The most vulnerable people who do not have milk in their fridge … this is beyond the scope of broadband programs and more closely related to social services, safety nets, etc…
    • The digital divide is there, and investing $200M into research for 5G technology is an excellent part of a broadband strategy, since this technology is estimated to be 1000 times faster than current 4G technology. This technology could be used to service these rural/remote areas allowing them to have access to speeds on par with their urban counterparts and could reduce the cost of delivering broadband internet to urban areas since attaching fibre to homes may no longer be needed.
    • How do you define “affordable”, and once it is defined are you proposing we create new regulations for ISPs that limit how much they can charge their customers?
    • Are you proposing we create a new program to subsidize an individual’s internet bill? (a la Local Voice Subsidy that is being phased-out)
    • Do you have suggestions to help close the digital divide? Or is the solution to have the task force write another report?

  • Although this comment arrived effectively anonymously [and I usually require that commenters privately provide me with an email address], I thought it was appropriate to approve it, since it was created from an IP address inside the Innovation Canada offices.

    Any search on this blog will show that there are a number of ways that the Federal government could lead development of targeted programs, without imposing price controls. For example, had increasing broadband adoption among low income households been a priority, the Government could have imposed a condition on the MTS transaction to require a program to be developed similar to those offered by TELUS and Rogers.

    To say that 5G is an excellent part of a broadband strategy assumes that there is, indeed, a broadband strategy. There isn’t.

    You may wish to refer to my post “Looking at who, not just where” to address the other points.

  • Smith

    Thanks for taking the time to respond, I find the topic interesting and found your blog while eating my disappointing microwaved lunch.

    That is a decent example, but the programs offered by Telus and Rogers are voluntary. There were already a lot of conditions put on the sale of MTS (including locking of prices for 2 years) it seems like this could be seen as overstepping the government’s bounds on the market to force them to adopt another business stream. Also, if Telus or Rogers decide to stop this service the government has no say, so why should Bell be obligated?

    There may not be a document explicitly called “Broadband Strategy”, but there is in fact many decisions being made to increase broadband affordability and accessibility in the country. For example: wholesale prices being reduced, mandating incumbents share fibre routes, tower sharing rules, removing roaming charges. Creating programs to bring broadband to rural Canadians, researching into better technology.

    Infact in the study you referenced Canada is tied for 8th out of 75 countries, ranking 1st in first overall under Internet Affordability. It seems the next step should be ensuring that everyone has access to the internet, once that happens there would be funds and time to dedicate to finding the gaps (low income households, etc..) and ways to address them. Maybe offering tax credits for internet services if you are under a certain income or having things like EI and social assistance cover these amounts as well.

    Anyways, interesting blog and I didn’t mean to sound so rude in my initial post. Have a great day.