Mark Goldberg


Digital divide

I’d like to update Hoover’s 1928 promise of prosperity: We need a connected computer for every home.

Will activists join me in calling for universal access to computers? I have been sitting on a blog posting for about a month now. As we approach the end of the year, I think this makes for a suitable set of messages.

The Globe and Mail’s feature last month on “Disconnected: Canada’s digital divide” helped to keep Canadians interested in the development of a national digital strategy. The on-line version was re-titled as “Rural Canada loses as politics and business fail to get broadband down the last mile.” That title is inaccurate and the article itself was confusing.

An example:

By some estimates, about 700,000 homes in Canada lack broadband Internet access, and many Canadians who do connect to the Internet do so at speeds slower than 1.5 megabits per second – barely faster than dial-up, which can take an hour to download an average music album.

How is 1.5 Mbps “barely faster than dial-up”?

Dial-up in rural communities is rarely able to exceed 14.4 Kbps, less than 1% the speed of the 1.5 Mbps. How is more than 100 times faster – 2 orders of magnitude – reduced to an descriptive like ‘barely faster”? A call-out box in the print version of the article compares the time to download a 700 MB video for 1.5 Mbps service versus 70 Mbps. About 20% of Canadians choose to connect to the internet using 1.5Mbps or less. How many  of us choose 70 Mbps service? It is inaccurate when the article says that 1.5 Mbps is too slow to stream videos on-line.

The article also bounces back and forth mixing present capabilities with future requirements. For example:

It’s too slow to stream videos online, and certainly far too slow for future applications such as telemedicine, where diagnoses and checkups can be done through high-definition, real-time video connections.

Actually, 1.5Mbps is sufficient to stream videos – granted not HDTV. But the article is completely off when talking about telemedicine. Virtually all consumer telemedicine applications are low bit rate telemetry. Canadians will have residential diagnostic imaging devices around the same time that my car gets powered with a Mr. Fusion machine. Comparing the current state of affordable residential broadband with future business-grade connectivity requirements is sloppy – mixing the future with the present; confusing residential and business services.

Mixing the future ambitions of other countries with Canada’s present is a frequent problem. For example, when describing the inadequacies of 1.5 Mbps, the article says:

By comparison, the U.S. government’s “National Broadband Plan” sets a target speed of “affordable” 100 megabits-per-second Internet service connecting at least 100 million homes by 2020.

Let’s take a look at this objective [pdf],  in closer detail. The US has about 120 million households, increasing by about 1 million each year. So, in 10 years, the FCC would like to see around 75% of households connected to a service that most urban Canadians and Americans have access to today.

But what is the relevance to the 700,000 rural Canadians who are the subject of the article? The “by comparison” is meaningless without talking about what the FCC envisions for the 25% of Americans not captured by the “100 Squared” ambition.

The article mentions Finland having declared broadband as a legal right, without mentioning that it is for a 1 Mbps service. If 1.5 Mbps is “barely faster than dial-up” as the article writes, then what is really implied by a Finlandian declaration of rights, as opposed to what Canadians can truly access without political grandstanding.

In the article, I am quoted saying

I think we’ve got parts of Toronto that have more people who don’t have [Internet] access than all parts of rural Canada

I am pretty sure that I would not have said that there are any parts of Toronto that don’t have internet access. As frequent readers of my blog know, I have campaigned on these pages for more attention to be spent on broadband adoption – which is the correct term for the demand side of the equation.

The web-version of the article includes an audio recording of an interview with Industry Minister Tony Clement that has an important statement not captured in the written version:

Technologies have advanced that collapse some of these borders and allow a lot of those needs to be looked after. We have to keep nurturing that and creating incentives for that to be deployed.

All of us involved in the communications industry have similar objectives: to increase the availability and adoption of advanced communications services and technologies. We may disagree on how to achieve this, but as we approach the new year, we need to keep looking forward.

I have a specific target in mind. Before we can have universal adoption of broadband, we need to look at how to get computers into every home, starting with households that have school-aged children.

With a possible election in 2011, will the agenda of any political party include a modern promise for digital prosperity: a connected computer in every home?

4 comments to Digital divide

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Greg O'Brien and Mark Goldberg, G20 ICT Policy Netwo. G20 ICT Policy Netwo said: Canada: Call for a modern promise for digital prosperity from @Mark_Goldberg. […]

  • Sam Davies

    Personally, I would prefer that the agenda of any political party include a modern promise for digital affordability. The path that lies before us is horrendous.

    The government needs to either take care of business, or get off the pot. Unfortunately, the political instability of minority governments is not the environment for doing what is right or necessary – it is about gaining political favour.

    Free Market principles do not apply in an environment where competition is highly regulated. The incumbents not only control the pipes, but also have invested interest in what travels those pipes. This conflict of interest must be dealt with. We should follow the example of Australia.

    Now which political party is brave enough to serve the better interests of Canadian citizens?

  • Yes, it would be good to help bring computers to those who don’t have them and would like them, but broadband can provide value to citizens through other access devices too. Computers are complicated, and devices like tablets (touch and icon driven) or mobile phones may be a better alternative in some instances.

    Non-users repeatedly say that they are not interested in using the internet, or have no need for it. Providing a computer to non-users may, or may not, encourage them to get online (leading a horse to water…).

    Additionally, if we understand broadband networks as more than the internet, then there are ways to get the benefits of a digital society without a computer, e.g. through a connected healthcare device, services delivered to a television set etc.

    See “Delivering Services over Next Generation Broadband Networks: Exploring Devices, Applications and Networks” in the Telecommunications Journal of Australia. (60:4), preprint version online at or abstract at

  • Catherine: I am disappointed in your comment about computers being complicated. I gave my 82 year old father a computer with browser application only a few years back, and he not only learned how to use it, but how to search and surf the Internet. He loves research and reading encylopedias (remember those), and now spends a few hours a day in ‘continuous learning’. He commented recently that he was glad he retired when he did because he never wanted to use a computer. Now, he loves it. Tablets and voice activated devices will help, but I support Mark’s comment about broadband and computer access 100% for Canada. A knowledge-based society has many benefits for all levels, ages of society. Education, healthcare, entertainment, improving literacy, etc. Let’s encourage our politicians and regulators to drive investment to have Canada be a world leader in the knowledge society at all ages!
    Roberta Fox