Canadian broadband: the time for complaining is over

It's hard to imagine life without the Internet. But for millions of people, it's a reality.

Tiago Gualberto Morais/Flickr

I had to take a deep breath before writing this post, mostly to get all the four-letter words and other obscenities out of my system. There are few things that make me as angry as Canada’s abject failure on broadband issues, a situation that was highlighted again on Wednesday by our neighbours to the south and their creation of a plan to get high-speed Internet to the poorest Americans.

If you missed the news, the Federal Communications Commission introduced a plan that will give households in the National Student Lunch Program access to broadband for $9.99 a month. Moreover, the FCC’s Connect 2 Compete program will also get these families access to inexpensive computers ranging from $150 to $250, plus training on how to use them and the Internet. This is far from just a government initiative, though—the broadband part is coming through a partnership with cable companies such as Comcast, with the likes of Microsoft and Best Buy providing the other stuff.

It’s probably hard for anyone reading this (on the web) to imagine what life would be like without the Internet, but for those millions of Americans, it’s reality. That’s why, for the most part, the FCC’s plan is being lauded. Lefty types like it for obvious reasons while the righties like it too because it targets those 5.5 million homes that don’t—and most likely can’t—subscribe to broadband anyway. The plan doesn’t take money out of Internet providers’ pockets and it stands to add millions of people to what was once considered the economy of the future, but what is in reality the economy of the now.

Here in Canada, we can only look on in envy—and anger, because our situation is similar. Canada has an estimated 500,000 households that can’t afford broadband, which is not necessarily a case of whether telecom companies are charging too much for the service, but rather a simple fact of poverty. The Canadian government’s record in all things broadband, meanwhile, is dismal, particularly in comparison with our G8 partners. Along with the U.S., every other country that counts has taken definitive steps to get all of its citizens connected:

Japan: Not surprisingly, Japan is the world’s most advanced Internet nation, with the cheapest and fastest broadband available (only South Korea comes close). It all started with the e-Japan plan, a strategy unveiled way back in 2001… you know, when Canada was still a world broadband leader. Looking at that link, which goes to the government’s e-Japan website, is a lesson in irony given how absolutely ancient it looks by today’s standards.

France: The French government launched its France Numerique plan back in 2008 with an aim to making the country a leader in the digital space by 2012. The comprehensive plan tackled everything from getting universal access to broadband by 2012 to better video game production. While France is getting close to assessing how well it has done, Canada hasn’t even gotten in on the ground floor.

Germany: The Germans have aimed high with their broadband plan, announced in 2009. The first phase looks to get 75 per cent of the country speeds of 50 megabits by 2014 while the next phase aims for 100 megabits to 50 per cent and 50 megabits to another 30 per cent by 2020. It’s an ambitious goal, but it’s always good to shoot high because if you fall short, you’re usually still miles ahead of where you started.

Italy: The Italian government also detailed its broadband strategy in 2009, with a plan to get universal connections speeds of 2 megabits by 2012 and 20 megabits by 2020. Work continues apace, with the government leading and organizing industry to implement the plan.

United Kingdom: The UK’s plan of getting every home a connection of at least 2 megabits per second by 2015 isn’t exactly ambitious, but it’s still better than what Canada has, which is diddly squat.

Russia: The good news is the Canadian government is not alone in the G8 in being asleep at the broadband wheel. The bad news is, it’s joined by Russia, which has apparently done about as much—the government has talked a bunch about broadband, but otherwise initiated nothing. Simply put, there’s really no level on which Canada wants to be compared to Russia.

Depressing, isn’t it? And that’s just the G8; never mind what’s going on in other European and Asian countries, plus Australia and New Zealand, where governments are actively spending billions of dollars in overseeing the construction of next-generation networks that will, with any luck, be accessible by all of their citizens. A quick read of this Wikipedia page or the OECD’s overview is enough to bring any Canadian who cares about the future of their country to tears.

In the end, we can only complain about this for so long. Blaming the government or telecom companies for holding back or doing nothing about Canada’s digital development clearly isn’t getting us anywhere—it’s obvious both have failed the country—which is why people from across the spectrum are starting to speak up and/or taking action. Greg O’Brien, editor of telecom and broadcast news site, has an excellent overview of the issue.

As he points out, solving this problem starts with getting computers to those who need them most. Renewed Computer Technology is a non-profit charity that specializes in taking used corporate machines, wiping them clean and then redistributing them to schools, libraries and others who need them. If you or your company has computers that need to be disposed, check with this organization to see if they can be put to use.

Similarly, telecom consultant Mark Goldberg is trying to organize a “One Million Computers” movement that seeks to address the same issues. While Mark and I disagree on many things, this isn’t one of them. All Canadians should have a computer and have Internet access, period. If you think you might be able to help or have any ideas, feel to contact him or me through our respective websites.

The broadband side of things is trickier to solve. The answer, when industry and government is failing the people, may lie in the people bringing things closer to home, as a recent fight in Longmont, Col. illustrates. The town of 80,000 was tired of getting substandard service from ISPs, so it held a referendum and—despite hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying by Comcast and other opponents—succeeded in getting the right to build its own fibre network. How it goes from here remains to be seen, but it’s an inspirational win for fans of democracy (and who isn’t one?).

If this issue does bother you, get on the phone to your MP, MPP or local councillor and urge others to do the same. Let them know that Canada can’t afford to be left behind.

Is this sort of local engagement the future of broadband development? Will Internet access boil down to people doing it for themselves? Unfortunately in Canada, it’s sure looking that way.

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