Mark Goldberg

Connecting Canadians

There have been many stories about the latest Federal budget [pdf, 6.7MB] that sets out funding to achieve the CRTC’s objective to have broadband access available to all Canadians by the year 2030. I have said before that the CRTC’s December 2016 release of Telecom Regulatory Policy CRTC 2016-496, Modern telecommunications services – The path forward for Canada’s digital economy, was among the most mis-reported decisions to come out of the Commission.

While news coverage of the Budget rightly hailed the $1.7 billion over 13 years to establish a new Universal Broadband Fund, most accounts didn’t look at the actual funding breakdown over the next five years:

  • $26M in 2019-2020;
  • $162M in 2020-21;
  • $220M in 2021-22;
  • $216M in 2022-23;
  • $92M in 2023-24.

Over the next five years, it is a total of $717M, ramping up as the remaining funds of the Government’s current Connect to Innovate program are disbursed. Of the $1.7B headline funding, a billion dollars, or about 60% is beyond the current budget window.

Indeed, in the coming year (starting April 1), the budget calls for more money to be spent on digital literacy than on the Universal Broadband Fund. The Digital Democracy Project in Canadian Heritage is allocated an additional $7M “for measures to support citizen digital literacy ahead of the 2019 General Election. This initiative will aim to equip Canadians with knowledge of deceptive practices and the tools to navigate the internet and better understand information consumption online more generally.” The new funding supplements an earlier allocation of $7.5M intended to support research and policy development on online disinformation. Canada aims to lead an international initiative to develop principles on how to “strengthen citizen resilience to online disinformation.”

An additional $30M for the next two years is being budgeted for youth training, developing digital skills within the CanCode program and aiming to help one million more young Canadians gain new digital skills.

Increasing broadband adoption has usually been viewed as a challenge for increasing the supply of infrastructure. Last October, I wrote “Is it time to focus on demand?“. At the time, I said:

I’m not just talking about teaching people how to turn on a computer and connect to the internet. We need to do more than teach kids coding as part of our literacy development. How do we teach how the importance of accessing diverse news sources and viewpoints? In a world where a generation has thought of The Late Show as a trusted news source, are we doing enough to invest in teaching how to read and watch with a critical eye?

It isn’t a matter of having to choose between supply side or demand side stimulation. We need to work on the balance. There is some investment in helping on the demand side of some programs. Maybe we need to work on putting our thumb on the scale a little bit more.

I am especially encouraged by the potential for Canadian leadership through the investment in the Digital Democracy Project. It is refreshing to see the government targeting both supply and demand for digital infrastructure and services.

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