The fourth degree

Nearly 15 years ago, I wrote a little piece called “4 degrees of impersonal communications”, describing the way we speak to one another in different settings: in person, over the phone, in emails, and on web sites.

Face-to-face communications (a first degree interaction) has no record, no evidence beyond the memory of the participants. Telephony (second degree) may have a record, such as an audio voice message. Email (3rd degree) gets circulated, over and over. Thanks to search engines and web-archiving tools, the web (4th degree) offers a permanent record.

Paradoxically, we seem to take more care in communications when the conversation can most easily be private and candid. Conversely, we pay less attention to etiquette and courtesy when the audience is global and of diuturnal impact.

Earlier this month, I wrote a blog post entitled “Mythbusting Canadian telecom”. A couple weeks ago, I was asked if I would mind them promoting my tweet that linked to the post. At the time, I thought it would be a great way to drive traffic to my blog and Twitter feed.

I should have remembered the 4 degrees thing.

The promoted tweet generated thousands of additional views of the blog post and more than a hundred ‘likes’ of the tweet itself. I added a large number of followers on Twitter and a bunch of subscribers to my blog.

But, it also led to a remarkable number of venomous replies, some crossing the line into virulent antisemitism, virtually all of which came from anonymous accounts. As an aside, a significant proportion of the trolls used cat images, a bunch used Soviet-era communist icons, while most of the others are stuck in their fantasy cartoon and gaming personas. Hiding in their mom’s basement behind the safety of a shield of anonymity, it seems too easy to spread hate and be downright anti-social on some social media platforms.

Confronted with inconvenient facts, apparently some people feel the need to resort to ad hominem attacks, rather than preserving the obscurity they so richly deserve.

I’m not offering a solution; I’m just finding there is some catharsis in venting.

Your comments are welcome. (Reminder: comments are moderated on this platform)

Clear signals on Canada’s 5G networks

Opensignal released the first edition of its “Canada 5G User Experience Report” and I found the accompanying commentary to be more interesting reading than the comparisons of service providers.

In Opensignal’s first comparison of the 5G experience across carriers in Canada, we found a mobile network experience landscape characterized by extreme competition. Out of seven awards for the taking, not one award category was won outright by any of the operators. Our users saw three-way statistical ties between Bell, Rogers and Telus on three metrics — 5G Availability, 5G Reach and 5G Upload Speed — and in the remaining categories, users saw ties between two operators.

That merits repeating: “in Canada, we found a mobile network experience landscape characterized by extreme competition.”

Opensignal continued, by recognizing that Canada has historically been one of the “leading 4G markets globally when it comes to mobile network experience …, but when it comes to 5G, Canada is losing global leadership.”

Opensignal points to limited availability of spectrum for Canadian mobile carriers compared with international peers.

This change of fortunes as we enter the 5G era is likely because Canada’s carriers are limited to deploying 5G in lower spectrum bands for now, as the auction of the critical 3.5 GHz mid-band spectrum was delayed until June 2021 due to COVID-19. However, even then, Canadian carriers will have access in this auction to a very limited amount of spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band — 200 MHz (maximum of 150 MHz for Bell, Telus and Rogers) — which is significantly lower compared to many other 5G countries.

The report notes that the “full capabilities of 5G are best realized through the wider channel sizes in the new 5G bands”, saying that “for users to enjoy the best 5G speeds, carriers need to be able to deploy 5G with 100 Mhz channel sizes which is extremely difficult for carriers to achieve without access to new mid-band spectrum.”

In the future, Canada’s carriers need access to comparable amounts of new 5G spectrum to carriers in other countries. Otherwise, if Canada’s carriers are forced to continue to rely on re-using existing spectrum for 5G, or lower frequency bands for 5G that offer great coverage but lower capacity, then Canada risks falling further behind in the global 5G race for offering the best mobile network experience.

These seem to be some pretty clear signals from Opensignal, a global observer of the mobile marketplace: Canada has a 5G market landscape characterized by extreme competition, but constrained by limited spectrum.

The broadband divide’s little secret

Broadband adoption is lower in low income households compared to higher income households. Absolutely true.

So why don’t we just lower the monthly price and solve the income divide?

That was my thought process way back, when I first started looking at income data correlated with computer ownership and home internet subscriptions.

Unfortunately, after introducing Connected for Success, Internet for Good, Connecting Families and other targeted programs, we have learned that getting people online isn’t just a matter of price.

Economists Gregory Rosston and Scott Wallsten wrote about this last year:

Well-meaning policymakers and advocates typically say that the biggest issue keeping low-income people from subscribing is the cost. Surveys consistently list that as one of the top two reasons. If that were so, the solution would be obvious: increase subsidies. And, to be sure, lower prices for low-income households would encourage additional adoption. As economists, far be it from us to argue that demand curves do not typically slope downwards.

But evidence from people’s behavior, as opposed to survey responses, has shown that the price of broadband service is not the primary factor that keeps many low-income households from subscribing.

The paper talks about the need to gather more evidence, such as experiments conducted by the FCC in the US that tested different price points. “Only about ten percent of the expected number of households signed up, even with the price of one plan set at $1.99 per month.”

Last week, Policy Options carried a piece by Doug Brake and Alexandra Bruer, asking “Is the link between internet adoption and broadband pricing overstated?” The subtitle summarizes the article saying, “Pricing is often identified as a barrier to internet adoption, but the data is unclear. Policy-makers should focus on subsidies for low-income users.” That article cited the 2020 Inclusive Internet Index by The Economist Intelligence Unit, that gave Canada a high ranking, based on internet availability, affordability, relevance (which measures the availability of content relevant to local users) and readiness. Earlier this week, the 2021 edition was released and Canada moved up (into 6th place of 120 countries) and first in Affordability, saying “The competitive Canadian broadband market is a key factor underpinning relatively affordable fixed broadband costs and Canada’s 6th place overall ranking.”

There are certainly many households that have trouble paying the generally available rates for broadband service, just as those households have difficulty paying generally available prices for food, shelter and other basic needs. The “broadband affordability” argument often gets extrapolated to say that prices need to be lowered across the board [see: Myth 2: Pricing equals Affordability].

We use a direct subsidy approach for other basic needs. Why are communications services treated differently? Across Canada, there are low priced plans for disadvantaged households that are provided on a voluntary basis by participating service providers, not government funding.

But we have learned, lower prices aren’t enough to get people to connect.

We have well-meaning advocates and academics in Canada pushing agendas for municipal broadband with no evidence, or in the case of ConnectTO, deeply flawed evidence, to support their assertions that gaps in adoption rates are all about price.

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. We see that with Toronto’s misguided and ill-informed Connect TO project. The Policy Options article concludes by saying “We should look instead at improving existing subsidy systems to address broadband affordability head-on, rather than through wholesale changes to industry structure.”

Professor Mark Jamison warns that the US is embarking on a similar, but even more elaborate $100B broadband boondoggle.

President Joe Biden wants Americans to have broadband in the worst way. His $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan — which isn’t a jobs plan, but that’s another topic — includes $100 billion for broadband using the worst plan imaginable: He wants broadband provided by the government institutions that bring us the U.S. Postal Service, Amtrak and our failing transportation, water and other infrastructures. What could go wrong?

Bridging the income divide will take more than just lower prices. We are going to need to do more to build increased digital literacy and trust among those who aren’t already comfortable online. As I have said so often, we need better quality data to inform our policies and implementation plans.

As Economists Rosston and Wallsten found, we need to look beyond price to find the secret to bridging the digital divide.

Are pandemics caused by lack of good information?

The International Telecommunications Society is hosting a webinar on May 11, 2021 at 9:00am (Eastern) addressing Information Problems During the Pandemic.

The abstract for the webinar asks us to consider the following:

COVID-19 is caused by a virus. The COVID-19 pandemic is caused by a lack of good information.

A pandemic is essentially an information problem, and if we solve the information problem, we can defeat the virus. Pandemics may be unpredictable, but they can be planned for.

This webinar will compare pandemic-induced economic crises to past recessions, map the phases of the pandemic economy and the information needed to enable economic recovery, discuss digital communication strategies, and describe the role of telecommunications in supporting testing, contact tracing, and other public health responses.

Joshua Gans, professor of Strategic Management and holder of the Jeffrey S. Skoll Chair of Technical Innovation and Entrepreneurship at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management will be the speaker. Dr. Gans is also Chief Economist of the University’s Creative Destruction Lab.

It promises to be an interesting and very different way to examine the issues we face globally.

Mark the time on your calendars: May 11, 2021 from 9:00 – 10:00 Eastern Time and book your place, today. Registration is free.

#STAC2021: State of the wireless industry

Robert Ghiz, President and CEO of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) was the featured keynote speaker for the penultimate session of STAC2021, the annual conference of Canada’s Structure, Tower and Antenna Council, held online this year, after having to cancel last year’s event due to COVID-19.

In my years hosting The Canadian Telecom Summit, I have had the pleasure of welcoming Robert a number of times. His talks are typically packed with statistics and topical information about the wireless industry and its impact on Canadians and Canada’s economy. And he is arguably the most prominent public figure pushing Prince Edward Island as the tourist destination of choice when we get past these pandemic times.

Today, he shared important perspectives on Canada’s wireless and telecommunications industry as a key part of nation building, saying “Our industry today is what the railway was 150 years ago.” STAC members and the telecommunications industry have met the challenges of the pandemic head-on. “Canada’s wireless industry has been recognized as a national success story throughout this pandemic.”

CWTA members ensured that “even with intensified network traffic and altered usage patterns, that Canadians can continue to rely on the high-quality networks to which they have become accustomed.”

He told STAC that “Canada’s telecom network operators continue to invest billions each year in expanding Canada’s digital infrastructure while ensuring that Canada maintains its global leadership in quality of service by deploying next-generation technologies such as 5G.”

These investments have also outpaced our global peers. In the G7, Canada ranks first for investment by spending $255 per capita on telecoms, compared to $156 for the average OECD country and re-investing 23 cents for every dollar of revenue, compared to the average of 15 cents in OECD countries.

A report by Accenture estimates that $26 billion will need to be invested by facilities-based carriers between 2020 and 2026 in order to deploy the network infrastructure for 5G. Accenture found that Canada’s facilities-based wireless carriers have invested over $72.3 billion in building Canada’s wireless networks since 1987.

With its focus on facilities-based competition, yesterday’s CRTC decision [decision, backgrounder, news release] appears to endorse the federal government’s statement last summer that “Canada’s future depends on connectivity.”

In a statement following the release of the CRTC’s decision, Minister Champagne wrote:

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada’s telecommunications service providers and their front line workers have been doing their part and providing essential services to keep Canadians connected. Now more than ever, Canadians are relying on telecommunications services for work, school, finances and health care – making access to high-quality and affordable services essential.

Returning to the address by Robert Ghiz to STAC 2021, he closed by emphasizing the importance of investment in telecommunications services. “COVID-19 has highlighted the need to invest in providing digital access to all Canadians.”

Canada’s future depends on connectivity.

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