Mark Goldberg

There’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams…

It’s mid-December and, as has become an annual tradition, it’s that time again for me to write a year-end wrap-up post.

Like last year, over the past 12 months I have published just over 70 blog posts, down from a few years ago in part because I am spending more time on Twitter, and also because of the need to deal with a few important personal issues, especially the two most enjoyable distractions (who have been interfering with my focus for 5 years and 3 years respectively).

The archives for this blog (accessed in the “My back pages” tab) now include more than 2800 articles, chronicling trends and issues as far back as 1997. As I look at the analytics, it is interesting to see the search terms being used. It is especially gratifying to see that a number of older posts continue to attract readers.

I continue to be optimistic about Canada’s telecommunications industry. After more than 39 years working to build advanced competitive communications networks in North America, I still find new challenges that make it a pleasure to get to work each day. Most satisfying is seeing the role played by low cost advanced communications in improving virtually everything we do.

It has never been easier or cheaper to communicate. I can talk with my kids and video-chat with my grandchildren halfway around the world every day as though they live around the corner.

Nov 6, 1970 Ad in Toronto TelegramWhen I was their age, my father would line us up in the kitchen on Sunday afternoons to stand quietly near the kitchen phone, as he prepared to call his dad in New Brunswick during the 60% discount period. Deep discount rates were also available after 11 pm each weeknight, but that just wouldn’t work for calling grandparents in the Atlantic time zone. So my dad would rush each of us through a quick “say hi” moment on the phone since long distance phone rates – even discounted long distance rates – were outrageously expensive. Our family was lucky to be able to afford weekly long distance calls. Regular trans-Canada rates were 50 cents per minute; evenings were about 3 minutes for a dollar, but late at night and on weekends, we could speak for 20 cents per minute – a crazy amount of money in those days. In those days, a McDonalds burger cost the same 20 cents; a Big Mac was 55 cents. No wonder Mother’s Day and Christmas Day were the busiest long distance calling days of the year; for many, calling home needed a special occasion to justify the cost of long distance.

Some groups talk about affordability of communications services but in most cases, they aren’t really talking about being able to find a plan that most of us can afford. There is a big difference between wanting to pay less for a device or service and being able to afford any plan or device.

I won’t get drawn into a discussion about why prices for some plans are lower in some other countries; Canadians pay more than people in other countries for a lot of goods and services, including our weekly grocery shopping bills. We still have government sanctioned ‘marketing boards’ and quota systems that inflate prices for genuine staples such as dairy products and poultry. So please forgive me for sometimes getting cynical about politicians proclaiming that they are seeking to lower costs for the middle class.

On the other hand, there are indeed some Canadians who are genuinely unable to find an affordable device or service plan that they may need to participate in today’s economy, to help find a job, maintain their health, be in touch with their families and friends. In late October, we learned that nearly 1 in 5 Canadians in the lowest income quartile doesn’t have broadband connection at home. In many cases, it isn’t just an issue of affordability; the experience learned from targeted programs that deliver low-cost connected computers have helped us to understand that there are a number of factors – not just lower prices – that inhibit adoption of communications technologies among certain demographics.

I have written a number of posts through the years calling for us to do more to develop a better understanding of those Canadians who have not yet adopted information and communications technologies. For example:

  • Building a broadband research agenda • October, 2016: “As Canada invests in its Innovation Agenda, there is a gap in understanding why nearly 1 in 6 Canadian households has no broadband connection. There is an opportunity for better understanding to emerge from a Canadian broadband research plan.”
  • Do we know what we don’t know? • November, 2017: “Is Canada doing enough research to explore the nature of its digital divide? How can we find solutions for a problem that we may not fully understand?”
  • Understanding the digital divide • March, 2018: “Bridging the digital divide isn’t just about rural infrastructure. Should Canada expand research to improve our understanding of other contributing factors that limit digital adoption?”
  • We need more data • October, 2019: “How is Canada supposed to be engaged in evidence-based policy making when there is so little information being gathered about who is online, how Canadians are using the internet and perhaps most importantly, who isn’t online yet and why not?”

As I wrote this past June, “Unfortunately, most government programs continue to focus on increasing “supply”, extending access to broadband. We need to ensure there are strategies to drive “demand”: increasing adoption rates among groups that could subscribe, but have not. That is a problem across all geographies, and is perhaps more pronounced in urban markets.”

If it is a matter of affordability, we can develop programs that target those people or households. Unfortunately, we do not currently know what all the factors inhibiting adoption really are. We need to fund much more research in this area.

In my year-end wrap-up in December 2010 entitled “Digital divide”, I wrote “I’d like to update Hoover’s 1928 promise of prosperity: We need a connected computer for every home.” We now know that it isn’t just price that is keeping people from getting online.

As we close the books on 2019 and set objectives for the coming year, let’s dream of more evidence-based policy making. Let’s dream of developing a greater understanding of those individuals and households on the wrong side of the digital divide. And let’s dream of creating solutions to bridge that gap.

I hope you and your families have a happy, healthy, safe and peaceful holiday season.

I look forward to engaging with you in the New Year.

1 comment to There’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams…

  • Mark: Thanks for writing such an insightful wrap up of the telecom industry for your year-end blog. I appreciate the historical perspective and analysis that you bring based on your analyzing and bringing the sector together through the Telecom Summit. I am ever hopefully optimistic that all Canadians can someday have access to not only broadband technology, but also have the computing devices and the skills to be able to use the technology. If all Canadians could be ‘connected’, then we could truly transform health care, education and community support and become a digitally innovative county for all. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful Christmas dream for all?