Solving the rural #HomeworkGap

Every household with a school child in Canada should have an affordable connected computer.

That would be a bold, yet attainable goal. But let me crank it up a notch. I think the goal can and should be achieved before the start of the next school year.

We already have programs in place, through the federal Connecting Families program, or Rogers1 Connected for Success, or TELUS’s Internet for Good.

While hundreds of thousands of households are eligible for these programs, too many homes aren’t yet taking advantage of the available savings. In some cases, there is a need for greater awareness of the programs. But, as I have written numerous times, we have learned that getting people online isn’t just a matter of price. In “A national digital literacy strategy”, I noted “Of those who do not currently use the internet, a significant portion attribute their lack of online activity to issues of digital literacy and concern for cybersecurity.”

Having access to low-cost broadband is only what we might call a “necessary, but insufficient” piece of the solution.

While there may be an issue with improving awareness of existing affordable access programs, this is a relatively easy problem to address. The government knows who qualifies under most of the programs and can get the word out through monthly assistance programs and through various social services agencies.

We need to develop more programs and develop partnerships with relevant social services agencies and organizations to assist with digital literacy training, as I discussed a few weeks ago.

Still, a problem we run into is that the carriers participating in these programs do not offer service in many rural and remote areas of the country, representing a significant number of households.

How do we cover the gap?

Perhaps governments at all levels may need to explore direct subsidies to assist with alternative access technologies. In some cases, there are smaller rural service providers; in other areas, broadband service may be available from a mobile or fixed wireless provider. In the most remote areas, satellite may be the only viable solution. In each of these cases, the lowest priced option would still be too expensive for some households. Perhaps it is time for the Federal Government to enhance its Connecting Families program, to expand the list of carriers and to offer a direct subsidy to qualifying households in areas that don’t have a participating service providers.

An effective broadband subsidy program for low-income households would have several key components, enabling eligible households to have choice of service provider and service levels. The approach of a direct government subsidy paid to the service provider could lead to the emergence of companies and agencies with a targeted focus on serving this segment of the market. Work would need to be done, and done quickly to be ready for school in September:

  • Eligibility criteria: The program could use the same criteria as Connecting Families to receive the subsidy (families receiving the maximum Canada Child Benefit and low-income seniors receiving the maximum Guaranteed Income Supplement).
  • Subsidy amount: The subsidy should be sufficient to make broadband service affordable for low-income households, taking into account the cost of internet service and any necessary equipment. The subsidy could be paid directly to the participating service provider, and cover up to a designated portion of the monthly price, up to a subsidy of some fixed level per month (for example, up to $50 per month subsidy).
  • Provider options: By offering a direct subsidy, eligible households can choose the service that best meets their needs and preferences.
  • Ongoing support: The program needs to include ongoing support to low-income households, such as troubleshooting assistance and education on how to use the internet and access government services.
  • Data Privacy and security: The program must ensure that personal data and information of low-income households is protected and not shared without consent.
  • Measurable outcomes: The program should have clear objectives and metrics in place to measure the impact and effectiveness of the subsidy, in order to make any necessary adjustments and improvements.

There are all sorts of issues that would need to be sorted through: getting devices, setting up appropriate financial controls, monitoring eligible regions, and so much more. I am not so naive as to think this would all get resolved this year, but it could. Couldn’t it? Shouldn’t it?

In one of my posts last week, I quoted an editorial in the Globe and Mail, “If there is no definition of success, there cannot be failure. And if there is no failure, there is no risk of accountability.”

I’d like to see the next budget take a risk and set a bold, but attainable objective: Every household with a school child in Canada should have an affordable connected computer.


1 As part of its plan to acquire Shaw, Rogers has said it “will also expand its Connected for Success program nationally to reach every Canadian where the combined company offers Internet services.” In its appearance at the Parliamentary INDU Committee last week, Rogers hinted that it plans to launch a wireless complement to Connected for Success. TELUS currently offers mobile plans for youth and seniors under its Mobility for Good program.

Accountability in government

“If there is no definition of success, there cannot be failure. And if there is no failure, there is no risk of accountability.”

That was the closing line of an editorial in last Saturday’s Globe and Mail, “How to succeed in Ottawa without ever trying.” The article speaks of an aversion in Ottawa to set “a vision married to a measurable outcome, a yardstick by which success or failure could be measured.”

Instead, we have programs, budget line items that allocate pots of cash to hand out for various endeavours deemed worthy. Rural broadband is a juicy one. Innovation is another.

Ministers handing out money makes for a great press release, and maybe even a great photo op. “Our government is proud to contribute to the initiative…”

What could possibly go wrong?

As we now know, the answer to that question is “a lot.”

In a press release dated April 21, 2021, we read a quote attributed to The Honourable Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Housing and Diversity and Inclusion:

In Canada, diversity is a fact, but inclusion is a choice. Our government is proud to contribute to the initiative ‘Building an Anti-Racism Strategy for Canadian Broadcasting: Conversation & Convergence.’ Together, let’s continue to build a country that is better, fairer, and more inclusive for everybody, and work together to address issues such as the barriers faced by racialized Canadians. Thank you to CMAC for opening these discussions.

According to Blacklock’s Reporter, a briefing note prepared by Canadian Heritage “says it did a “comprehensive assessment” before awarding a $133,822 grant to a consultant who fantasized on Twitter about shooting Jews.”

Apparently, that assessment wasn’t quite comprehensive enough. No one did a basic web search before awarding the funds, or allowing the Minister to appear in a press release alongside Laith Marouf. In my blog post last April, I asked “Was sufficient due diligence performed when Heritage officials were reviewing this funding request?”

An essay in last week’s New York Times asked “What if Diversity Trainings Are Doing More Harm Than Good?” The article observes that the diversity, equity and inclusion (D.E.I.) “industry” reached an estimated $3.4 billion in 2020 in the United States.

D.E.I. trainings are designed to help organizations become more welcoming to members of traditionally marginalized groups. Advocates make bold promises: Diversity workshops can foster better intergroup relations, improve the retention of minority employees, close recruitment gaps and so on. The only problem? There’s little evidence that many of these initiatives work. And the specific type of diversity training that is currently in vogue — mandatory trainings that blame dominant groups for D.E.I. problems — may well have a net-negative effect on the outcomes managers claim to care about.

According to the minutes of its meeting last October 25, the Parliamentary Heritage Committee agreed “That the officials from the Department of Canadian Heritage that were responsible for the funding of Laith Marouf be invited to appear before committee regarding the federal funding provided to the Community Media Advocacy Centre by the Department of Canadian Heritage and the Department officials’ handling of the situation”. The officials are to “appear before the committee following the conclusion of the consideration of Bill C-18”.

Consideration of Bill C-18 concluded before the year-end holiday break. There have not been any meetings scheduled yet.

When will the Heritage Committee take a comprehensive look at the failures that led to a serial purveyor of hate being engaged under the guise of of an anti-racism program? It is long overdue for an examination of federal funding provided to CMAC, and the Department officials’ handling of the situation.

Dealing with online harms

I have been taking some time to consider (and reconsider) my views on legislation to deal with online harms.

Last week, I had the pleasure of joining MP Anthony Housefather (Liberal – Mount Royal) in participating in an online event entitled “Exposing Antisemitism: Online Research in the Fight Against Jew Hatred”. My presentation looked at “Encountering and Countering Hate”.

I took the attendees through my experience over the past two years of dealing with the online presence of Laith Marouf, a subject that has been canvassed here frequently over that period.

As I described to the webinar attendees, it is important to distinguish between “hate” and what is “merely offensive”. In my view, we may not like encountering offensive content, but that doesn’t mean there should be legal restrictions on it. My readers have seen me frequently refer to Michael Douglas’ address in Aaron Sorkin’s “The American President”.

That said, Mr. Housefather argued that we should examine the algorithms that seem to amplify those messages that elicit visceral emotions and thereby get shared and forwarded by those readers who agree, as well as those who oppose.

Aviva Klompas and John Donohoe wrote “The Wages of Online Antisemitism” in Newsweek last week.

The old saying goes, sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Turns out that when those words are propelled by online outrage algorithms, they can be every bit as dangerous as the proverbial sticks and stones.

The authors write, “When it comes to social media, the reality is: if it enrages, it engages… Eliciting outrage drives user engagement, which in turn drives profits.”

In the next month, the US Supreme Court will be examining a couple of cases that challenge certain shields for online platforms found in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. As described in last Friday’s NY Times:

On Feb. 21, the court plans to hear the case of Gonzalez v. Google, which was brought by the family of an American killed in Paris during an attack by followers of the Islamic State. In its lawsuit, the family said Section 230 should not shield YouTube from the claim that the video site supported terrorism when its algorithms recommended Islamic State videos to users. The suit argues that recommendations can count as their own form of content produced by the platform, removing them from the protection of Section 230.

A day later, the court plans to consider a second case, Twitter v. Taamneh. It deals with a related question about when platforms are legally responsible for supporting terrorism under federal law.

The UK has been examining its Online Safety Bill for nearly two years. Its intent is to “make the internet a safer place for everyone in the UK, especially children, while making sure that everyone can enjoy their right to freedom of expression online”.

Key points the Bill covers
The Bill introduces new rules for firms which host user-generated content, i.e. those which allow users to post their own content online or interact with each other, and for search engines, which will have tailored duties focussed on minimising the presentation of harmful search results to users.

Those platforms which fail to protect people will need to answer to the regulator, and could face fines of up to ten per cent of their revenues or, in the most serious cases, being blocked.

All platforms in scope will need to tackle and remove illegal material online, particularly material relating to terrorism and child sexual exploitation and abuse.

Platforms likely to be accessed by children will also have a duty to protect young people using their services from legal but harmful material such as self-harm or eating disorder content. Additionally, providers who publish or place pornographic content on their services will be required to prevent children from accessing that content.
The largest, highest-risk platforms will have to address named categories of legal but harmful material accessed by adults, likely to include issues such as abuse, harassment, or exposure to content encouraging self-harm or eating disorders. They will need to make clear in their terms and conditions what is and is not acceptable on their site, and enforce this.

These services will also have a duty to bring in user empowerment tools, giving adult users more control over whom they interact with and the legal content they see, as well as the option to verify their identity.

Freedom of expression will be protected because these laws are not about imposing excessive regulation or state removal of content, but ensuring that companies have the systems and processes in place to ensure users’ safety. Proportionate measures will avoid unnecessary burdens on small and low-risk businesses.

Finally, the largest platforms will need to put in place proportionate systems and processes to prevent fraudulent adverts being published or hosted on their service. This will tackle the harmful scam advertisements which can have a devastating effect on their victims.

I wrote a couple pieces last year that are worth a second look:

I also think back to “Free from online discrimination”, an article I wrote 3 years ago when ministerial mandate letters called for creation of a Digital Charter so that Canadians would have “the ability to be free from online discrimination including bias and harassment.”

Will Canada follow the UK lead in developing our own legislation?

Does a UK approach adequately protect our Charter freedoms of expression?

Canada is a leader online

Last week, I wrote a piece that looked at a portion of the data released in December by the Pew Research Center.

A media release from CWTA looks at the Pew data, as well as recent data from the CRTC and Statistics Canada. In its release, “Canadians among global leaders in internet usage and smartphone ownership”, CWTA observes that the latest Canadian government data shows Canadians usage of the internet and smartphones has increased, while the cost of connectivity has declined.

The data from Pew shows that smartphone ownership in Canada continues to grow, and is in line with other surveyed countries.

The study also shows that smartphone ownership in Canada is similar to levels seen in other surveyed countries, with 98% of surveyed Canadians between the ages of 18-29 and 95% of those aged 30-49 owning a smartphone. As with other surveyed countries, the rate of smartphone ownership among Canadians aged 50 or more is lower than in younger age groups, with 72% those in the 50-plus age group reporting smartphone ownership.

This difference in smartphone ownership between age groups is an indication that there are factors other than cost that influence smartphone adoption, such as degree of digital literacy or lack of interest.

CRTC data released this week shows the average Canadian residential internet subscriber downloaded more than 4 times as much data in 2022 than in 2015. The average volume of data downloaded increased from 93.1 GB per month in 2015 to 394.4 GB in the third quarter of 2022. In the same period, subscribed data download speeds have increased by almost an order of magnitude, jumping from 28.5 Mbps in 2015 to 258.8 Mbps in 2021. Upload speeds have increased from 5.4 Mbps to 106.4 Mbps over the same period.

Coupled with these substantial improvements in performance, Statistics Canada data shows that the internet access component of the Consumer Price Index has fallen 1%, as contrasted with a 21% increase in the overall CPI. So, the average consumer is paying roughly the same price today as they were 7 years ago, despite six times the usage and 10-20 times the speeds.

On the mobile side, Statistics Canada data shows that the cellular services component of the CPI has fallen 32% between December 2018 and December 2022, while the overall CPI has increased 15% in that same period. Over that time frame, the CRTC shows that cellular data traffic grew from 2.3 GB per month to 6.07 GB per month, more than two and a half times as much data while prices fell by a third. Using data released this week from Ookla’s Speedtest Global Index, CWTA says “Mobile wireless network performance also increased significantly over this time, with the average download speed experienced by Canadian mobile users almost tripling from 46.31 Mbps to 125.34 Mbps from 2018 to 2022.”

CWTA President and CEO Robert Ghiz said,

Canada is among the world leaders in the adoption and use of the internet and smartphones. And while the consumption and performance of connectivity services continues to grow, prices are trending downward, while most everything else that is critical to Canadians is getting more expensive. These positive outcomes, together with the billions being invested each year by network operators to expand and enhance Canada’s digital infrastructure, are strong evidence of the benefits of facilities-based competition and the need for a stable regulatory environment that will allow these positive trends to continue.

The facts are clear.

Data from independent and government sources show that Canadians are getting far more value from their mobile and internet connections, contributing factors to why Canada remains a leader in online connectivity.

ChatGPT on “issues facing Canadian telecom policy”

What happens if you ask a powerful Artificial Intelligence engine (ChatGPT) to “prepare 1000-2000 words on the most important issues facing Canadian telecom policy”?

Telecommunications policy in Canada is a complex and ever-evolving field, with a variety of important issues facing the industry and government regulators. Some of the most significant issues include:

  1. Network expansion and infrastructure development: Canada’s telecommunications infrastructure is facing increasing pressure to keep up with the growing demand for data and internet services. This includes expanding high-speed broadband access to rural and remote areas, as well as upgrading existing networks to support the latest technologies and services.
  2. Competition and market structure: The Canadian telecommunications market is dominated by a small number of large companies, which has led to concerns about lack of competition and high prices for consumers. Regulators are working to promote competition and increase choice for consumers through measures such as spectrum auctions and wholesale access rules.
  3. Net neutrality: Net neutrality is the principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally, without discrimination or preference given to certain types of traffic or services. Canada has recently implemented net neutrality rules, but the issue is still a contentious one, with some arguing that it stifles innovation and harms competition.
  4. Privacy and security: As telecommunications networks become increasingly integrated into our daily lives, there are growing concerns about the security and privacy of personal data. The government has implemented new regulations to protect personal information and ensure that companies are transparent about their data collection and usage practices.
  5. Spectrum management: Spectrum is a finite resource that is essential for the operation of telecommunications services. The government manages the allocation of spectrum through auctions and licensing, but there are ongoing debates about how to best allocate and use this valuable resource to support innovation and competition in the telecommunications industry.
  6. Interconnection and roaming: Interconnection refers to the ability of different telecommunications networks to connect and exchange traffic, while roaming refers to the ability of mobile devices to connect to other networks when outside of their home network area. These issues are important for ensuring that consumers can access services and connect with others, regardless of their location or the network they are using.
  7. 5G: 5G is the next generation of mobile networks that promises faster download and upload speeds, lower latency, and increased capacity for more devices. It’s also expected to enable new technologies like Internet of Things (IoT) and self-driving cars. This is an important issue for Canada’s telecommunication policy, as it will affect the country’s competitiveness in the global economy.
  8. Affordable access: Affordable access to the internet and telephone services is a major issue in Canada, particularly in rural and remote areas. The government is working to increase affordability through programs such as the Universal Broadband Fund, which aims to expand high-speed internet access to underserved areas.
  9. Telecommunications innovation: The telecommunications industry is constantly evolving, with new technologies and services being developed all the time. Regulators are faced with the challenge of fostering innovation while also ensuring that the industry remains stable and competitive.
  10. International trade: Canada’s telecommunications industry is closely tied to the global economy, and the country is heavily involved in international trade agreements and negotiations. This includes issues such as cross-border data flows and market access for Canadian companies in other countries.

The above-mentioned issues are just a few of the key challenges facing Canadian telecommunications policy today. It is important for government regulators and industry stakeholders to work together to find solutions that promote innovation, competition, and consumer choice while also protecting privacy, security, and affordability.

In an undergrad telecom course, I’d score it as a B-plus. It succeeded in canvassing issues overall, but it is incomplete in the discussion portion of many items, partly due to my imposition of a limited word count. The system got item 8 wrong, conflating the issue of “Affordable access” with government programs to assist investment in infrastructure expansion (which is better covered in item 1). However, given that some academics have supported development of large urban government overbuilds (such as ConnectTO) with a goal of creating affordable access, it isn’t a complete surprise that the AI database has been polluted with some misinformation.

I have seen worse papers published by academics and parliamentarians.

There is still a need to fact-check the output of these artificial intelligence systems, just as there is a need to verify human outputs.

That’s good news. ChatGPT isn’t able to replace me… yet.

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