On the surface, Industry Minister James Moore’s announcement this week that the federal government will spend up to $305 million between now and 2017 to extend high-speed Internet access to 280,000 underserved Canadian households sounds like a slam dunk. Governments, after all, should always prioritize anything that gives us an edge in an increasingly digital-age economy.
But scratch a little deeper and it quickly becomes clear how out of touch the Harper government is with the dynamics of online policy and funding. If we take this latest announcement at face value, we essentially admit that Canada will forever trail the rest of the world in online access.
Too little, too late
The first problem is money. Simply put, it isn’t anywhere near enough. Four years after the U.S. kicked off its National Broadband Plan that could end up costing US$350 billion, Canada’s announcement seems cynically, laughably small. Even Australia, has committed to sinking AUS$43 billion into its ultra-high-speed National Broadband Network.
The second problem is speed, or lack thereof. Canada’s investment, such as it is, aims to deliver 5 megabit-per-second speeds. Back in the dark ages when we were all using dial-up modems to get online, 5 Mbps may have seemed impossibly fast. But in today’s bandwidth-sucking landscape, 5 Mbps is barely enough to sustain one high-quality videoconference call, let alone the dozen-plus – or more – multimedia and collaborative apps and services the average PC or mobile user will have open at any given moment.
The U.S. target for 2020 is 100 Mbps, which puts it in the same league as similar initiatives in Germany, Italy, and Spain. The United Kingdom is aiming for 24 Mbps access in 95 per cent of homes by 2016. Google Fiber, the high-speed broadband initiative that’s bringing service to Kansas City, MO, Provo, UT, and Austin, TX is 1 Gigabit per second, or 200 times as fast as Canada aims to be in 2017.
The third problem is we’ve heard it all before. This latest program is being called Connecting Canadians, and is only the latest rehash of brashly worded plans to Internet-enable the country. In 2001, the National Broadband Task Force promised coast-to-coast-high-speed broadband access by 2004. Two followup programs, the Community Access Program that focused on low-income Canadians by connecting equipped schools, community centres, and libraries, and the $225 million Broadband Canada Program that promised broadband access in have-not areas of the country, were shuttered in 2012.
To no one’s surprise, we’re losing the global race for higher-speed access, and things get worse outside Canada’s major cities. In 2012, CRTC figures showed only 85 per cent of rural homes had high-speed access – compared to 100 per cent in urban areas – and in many cases spent more than their city-dwelling counterparts for similar levels of service.
No tangible results
All of this means the government has spent 13 years convincing us that we’re getting something when, in fact, we aren’t. The pattern would be comical if it weren’t so disturbing: Ottawa commits pitifully small amounts of money every few years, then lets the programs quietly die out a few years later before replacing them with differently-named yet equally skeletal investments. All the while, countries with whom we compete in the global economy spend orders of magnitude more than we do, and succeed in delivering ever-faster connectivity to their citizens
In the end, I’m pleased as punch that Stephen Harper wants us to have faster Internet service. I just wish he’d realize it’ll take more than a penny-ante investment to keep pace with the rest of the world – and voters who head to the polls in next year’s federal election won’t be impressed by half-baked investments that guarantee Canada will fall even further behind other nations that have already realized you’ve got to pay to play.
This latest trickle of an investment is little more than a really thin, cheap layer of lipstick on a bandwidth-deprived pig. We deserve better.
Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own. firstname.lastname@example.org