In search of perfection

Government programs to provide better broadband are failing underserved markets. On this point, a number of recent releases agree.

Whether it is improving availability of higher speed, better quality, more reliable services, or improving rates of adoption among certain communities, governments in Canada at all levels are simply not delivering fast enough on their commitments to improve access to broadband services for their constituents.

Subsidy programs designed to stimulate construction in underserved areas have moved too slowly, and in some cases, the overhang of promised funding may have delayed roll-outs to areas that might have otherwise seen construction without government funding. (See: “A less than rapid response stream”.)

Social service agencies aren’t dispensing direct subsidies to allow low income households to sign up for communications services of their own choosing, leaving the development of such services to the goodwill of the private sector, which has stepped up to fill the void left by a failure of government leadership. Contrast this with the Emergency Broadband Benefit in the United States, that provides “a discount of up to $50 per month towards broadband service for eligible households”.

“Waiting to Connect”, a report [pdf, 3.8 MB] from the Council of Canadian Academies, says “Canada’s current broadband funding and consultation processes are often complex, onerous, competitive, and involve many actors, making them difficult for small, capacity-limited organizations to navigate.” This is accurate. However, it is difficult to support a conclusion that says “Broadband infrastructure can only meet long-term connectivity needs if it is scalable and sustainable, and if there is local expertise and capacity to build, operate, and maintain it.” The paper appears to argue against the efficiencies of scale, in favour of local capabilities. About a year ago, I wrote “Toward a universal broadband strategy”, that talked about the problems caused by the lack of stable funding to offset the higher ongoing operating costs associated with rural and remote telecommunications services. There is a relatively easy solution, reminiscent of the funding for high-cost serving areas that was formerly administered by the CRTC before it chose to duplicate other branches of government funding capital projects.

In another paper, from the Public Policy Forum, “Future Proof: Connecting Post-Pandemic Canada” [pdf, 1.8 MB] argues that Canada needs to be a global leader in 5G as I discussed a couple weeks ago. The paper argues for “future-proof digital connectivity
infrastructure—connectivity that is scalable so it is capable of supporting data rates that far exceed needs that can be foreseen today” but also notes “It is prudent to enter a caveat that truly universal future-proof connectivity cannot be assured within specified time.” Recognizing that universal access to fibre is impractical, the paper argues for Canada to develop a strategy to be a global leader in 5G.

Two papers, both talking about connectivity, but ignoring the issue of adoption. The papers focus on the supply side, without looking at measures to increase demand among those who are not yet connected.

In part, I believe the problem is a result of a failure to apply some basic systems engineering principles, defining requirements rather than specifying solutions. In the past, I have described this as having people start with a premise that they need nails, which is a specific kind of solution, rather than defining the real requirement, that they need to put two pieces of wood together.

It is easier to define problems in terms of solutions with which we are familiar, or in terms of concrete, physical solutions. As a result, we have had people hijack the need to increase broadband adoption among low income households and advocate for municipalities to build their own fibre network. The most extreme case is the Connect TO project, overlaying municipal fibre in one of the world’s most connected cities. Look at Beaumont, Alberta, a suburb of Edmonton, that in the summer of 2020 promised to have construction underway before the end of the year. A year and a half later, all that Beaumont has done is inhibit investment by private sector service providers. At least Beaumont isn’t as far along in squandering taxpayer dollars as Olds, Alberta which is rescuing its community network from bankruptcy.

As I have written before, we need a smarter approach to community networks.

The proponents and advocates for such local community network programs aren’t ill-willed, but unfortunately, I think many of these programs suffer from a failure to examine the potential for unintended consequences emerging from their solutions.

For example, if a municipality builds its own private network to link all schools, hospitals, and other municipal public institutions, it can have the effect of significantly damaging the business case for investment in communications infrastructure in the rest of the community. When a government infrastructure subsidy program is announced, it can freeze the incentives to invest until funding is distributed. Further, it is important to recognize that a government subsidized network, or a municipally owned network, impairs the business case for a competitive network build. It enshrines a monopoly in that area and the history of government telecom monopolies is not a good one.

There is some activity on the supply-side. Rogers (Connected for Success) and TELUS (Internet for Good) have each upgraded the initial targeted programs for affordable broadband, empowering disadvantaged households to choose the services that best meet their needs. It is expected that there will soon be upgrades to the national Connecting Families program, a private sector led initiative, coordinated under a federal government umbrella.

As we approach the end of the year, we need to look back at what we have learned from more than 20 months of pandemic-induced changes to our way of working and studying, driving increased needs for improved broadband connectivity at home.

Which programs are working? Can we, or should we, do more of them? How can we accelerate service improvements?

I have long argued “Isn’t some broadband better than nothing?” Isn’t it better to get some broadband service to unserved areas rather than wait for future-proof connectivity? When some Canadians are wanting for any kind of affordable broadband, it takes a certain kind of arrogance to proclaim that 25Mbps (or 50 Mbps) just isn’t good enough.

Le mieux est le mortel ennemi du bien.

We can’t wait for a perfect, “future-proof” solution for universal broadband for all Canadians. But surely we can strive to do a lot more, a lot better, and a lot sooner.

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