The new national dream

As we approach the mid-point of the Canadian election campaign, we are still missing the clarity of a vision statement such as that set out a year ago by Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains: “Canada’s Future Depends on Connectivity.”

Clear. Concise. Over the past year, I have referred frequently to that statement.

At the time, I observed there can be regulatory and policy levers that don’t require direct subsidies to improve the business cases for the private sector to invest in rural expansion. Policies that improve the business case for network investment go a long way toward leveraging the financial capacity and technological capabilities of telecom carriers to achieve our national connectivity objectives.

Unfortunately, we haven’t heard a lot about that kind of vision in this election campaign.

Two weeks ago, I drew your attention to an OpEd entitled “It’s time we finally closed the digital gap”.

It served as a reminder that it was just over 20 years ago, in June 2001, that the report of the National Broadband Taskforce was released, “The New National Dream: Networking the Nation for Broadband Access” [pdf, 1.5 MB]. Just over 100 pages, the report was the result of consultations chaired by then president of University of Waterloo (and future Governor General), David Johnston with panel of 33 leading telecommunications stakeholders representing a wide range of interests.

Twenty years ago, the task force sought to have broadband deployed in just over 3 years “to and within all Canadian communities”.

They were optimists.

Twenty years later, we still don’t expect the job to be complete in 3 more years.

The experience of Canada’s broadband pioneers provided an essential reality check for the Task Force. It helped immeasurably to point us in the right direction, as we sought to develop priorities and models for broadband deployment.

In light of this experience and on the basis of our analysis of the broadband requirements of Canadian communities, we recommend that by 2004, broadband facilities and services should be deployed to and within all Canadian communities, according to the following priorities.

  • All Canadian communities should be linked to national broadband networks via high-capacity, scalable transport links capable of supporting an aggregate of 1.5 Mbps symmetrical service to each end user, as well as higher bandwidths to institutions.
  • Access to broadband in First Nation, Inuit, rural and remote communities (including Métis communities) should be available at a reasonably comparable price to that charged in more densely populated areas.
  • The local broadband access infrastructure should be extended to the community’s public facilities, including every public learning institution, public health care facility, public library and other designated public access point.
  • The local broadband access infrastructure should also be extended to local business and residential users, for example, by leveraging broadband infrastructure serving public facilities.

It appears that the scale of resources required were underestimated. For example, for “Transport to unserved communities”, estimates of total required investment ranged “from $1.3 billion at the lower end to $1.9 billion at the upper end.” Another $500-600M was estimated to be required to connect public institutions and up to $2B to connect businesses and residences.

Still, many of the fundamental principles seem worthwhile to continue to hold onto:

After examining a large number of alternative approaches, we came to the conclusion that government-funded broadband deployment models should achieve the following objectives:

  • ensure third-party open access;
  • ensure competitive and technological neutrality;
  • ensure sustainability and scalability;
  • ensure transparency in all aspects of government funding programs;
  • maximize the role and risk taking of the private sector;
  • leverage the financial capability of the private sector;
  • minimize deployment costs;
  • encourage public and private sector partnerships;
  • respond to community needs; and
  • build community capacity.

Twenty years later, we continue to need leadership who can articulate a coherent telecom policy agenda, promoting innovation, and fostering an environment encouraging investment in telecommunications infrastructure.

Now, that would be a new national dream.

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