This post was originally published on National Newswatch, May 25, 2022.
Often, it can be a challenge to define a problem without specifying a solution. In many cases, we find it easier to think in terms of familiar solutions. Unfortunately, at a minimum, doing so limits the degrees of freedom for developing more creative solutions; or indeed, it could result in not solving the root problem, like a doctor treating a fever without fully understanding the underlying disease.
I have written before about a systems engineering approach to broadband. “Many people say that they need nails when what they really need is to hold two pieces of wood together. The difference between defining problems in terms of requirements versus preordaining a solution.”
Last weekend, I read an OpEd in the Toronto Star, saying “It’s time for Toronto to create an affordable high-speed internet network.” The article disturbed me, and not just because of its revisionist history of the Connecting Families program. The article is a classic example of jumping right to a “solution” without fully considering all aspects of the problem.
The article concludes with, “If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is the dire need for affordable, high-speed internet — for all.” The concluding statement is a more concise requirements definition, but still falls short.
Our target should be aiming for getting everyone online. Just 3 words, simple and easy to remember: “Get everyone online.”
Broadband for all, as some have campaigned, isn’t enough. The CRTC’s basic service objective, for all Canadians to have access to a high-speed broadband connection, is the right target for service providers, but it falls short as a national digital policy objective, because it addresses access but ignores adoption.
Like leading a horse to water, it isn’t enough to have a broadband connection available to every household. We should be aiming to connect every household, and connect every member of every household. More than just getting broadband access to every doorstep, we need to find ways to increase rates of adoption, especially among disadvantaged groups.
Unfortunately, the Star article’s proposal “to create a publicly owned and managed municipal broadband network” won’t solve the real problem. Building a duplicate municipal broadband network is an overly simplistic, one-dimensional approach that will be ineffective in addressing a complex multi-dimensional problem.
With almost a decade of experience in targeted broadband offerings, there is a good pool of experience from which we should develop a greater understanding of what it will take to get all Canadians online.
For example, we have learned that lower broadband prices aren’t enough to get everyone to connect. As I wrote in “The broadband divide’s little secret”, “The mistake that emerges from a lack of good economic and social data analysis is that governments are tempted to apply the wrong solution to solve the wrong problem.”
Bridging the income divide will take more than just lower prices for broadband and devices. We need to develop digital literacy skills and build trust among those who aren’t already comfortable online. We need to continue researching and delivering solutions to address all of the factors that are inhibiting adoption. These are important roles for local governments and agencies.
The objective, getting everyone online, can be stated simply, but delivering the solutions will be more complex.
Can we start with a common agreement that our national target has to reach beyond the CRTC’s basic service objective? Building broadband access is a necessary, but insufficient condition for a digitally connected Canada.
Get everyone online.