Toronto ICT plans

I have been reading (itBusiness, Globe, Star) about Toronto’s plans to get onto the global map for Information, Communications and Technology (ICT) research, development and production. I have to admit I am more than a little bit cynical.

The city’s report claims that Toronto is third to San Francisco and New York for ICT in North America, and yet, the city wants more. It sounds like a Rodney Dangerfield cry for ‘We don’t get no respect’. So let’s throw some government money to make us feel better. Toronto is number 3 in North America. It wants to be in the top 5 in the world.

Why am I cynical? This is the same city that has fought the telecom industry whenever it wanted to install fibre under the streets. In fact, it feels so strongly about the evil wealth of the telecom sector, that it has used their tax dollars to fund court appeal after appeal after appeal of the CRTC’s decision that says cities have to stop pillaging the industry. As I have written before, the CRTC and the courts have told the cities: “Enough!

Toronto is the same city that pays for its publicly-owned electric utility to offer free WiFi, not to provide high speed access to the underprivileged areas of the city, but to compete head-to-head against the private sector in the city centre.

Want a good start to stimulate ICT? How about declaring the GTA to be a ‘telecom friendly free-trade zone’? If carriers want access to upgrade facilities, why not welcome them with the same gusto that Toronto has for the movie industry? It seems to me that movie production trucks are a bigger source of traffic tie-ups than fibre-optic construction, but no one (including me) would complain about them disrupting the movement of cars. Let’s be as positive about new telecom infrastructure.

Fostering private sector competition – vigourous competion – is a way to stimulate the industry. Treating high tech infrastructure as a monopoly public utility is a guaranteed road to failure. Every time I hear the traffic reports talking about the continued closure of the intersection of Jane and Highway 7, it serves as a reminder that our governments already do a lousy job maintaining civil works like sewers and streets. Why would we want to trust government with the provision of critical electronic infrastructure?

Sure, government does a good job up front. It is the ongoing capacity planning and maintenance that are just plain underfunded. It’s only natural. Initial installations are sexy and make for good photo ops. Maintenance is boring.

A federal public servant that I respect once told me that governments typically do a lousy job of picking winners. If Toronto wants a strong ICT sector, it has to foster an environment that creates the right incentives for businesses to do it on its own.

Like a best practice for management, it seems to me that the key to fostering a stimulating, energized and creative work environment for ICT in Toronto is for government to clear roadblocks and then get out of the way while the industry does its own thing.

Rather than knocking on the doors of the existing private sector success stories and asking for them to contribute to pay for this new ICT initiative, let’s hope the mayor is receptive to just standing on the sidelines and cheering them on to do their own thing. Sometimes, the best form of stimulus may cost nothing at all.

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