Saturday, April 03, 2010

Rinks over broadband

An example of a high tech opportunity that the Harper government missed in making its stimulus spending choices is found in this report today: "Canada's digital divide." Broadband access for rural areas could have been made a priority to put Canada on a better footing in comparison to other countries and to give rural communities the basic tools that urban Canada has. A "cohesive national strategy" could have been undertaken. Competitiveness and productivity, the buzzwords when discussing Canada's economic challenges into the future, are greatly affected by such access. You'd think that the Conservatives, the party that likes to portray themselves as the party of rural Canada, would have paid a bit more attention to the issue. Here's a bit of an extended excerpt from the Globe report that sets out the dynamic:
As urban Canada races to build high-speed broadband networks to keep up with business and consumer demand for efficient communications, outlying regions are being left behind with slow, unreliable or costly connections.

This growing digital divide makes rural economic prosperity increasingly elusive. Canadians living in rural areas already have incomes well below their urban counterparts (14 per cent lower than the national average, according to a recent study that used earlier census data), and the earnings gap exists in every province. In areas that have an abundance of oil, potash or other key commodities demanded by the world's economic powers, fast Internet connections might not be so important, but for the rest, they're crucial to pulling in new employers. Communities that cannot plug into the high-speed digital economy cannot attract new businesses that rely on basic services such as electronic invoicing, Internet conferencing and large digital file transfers.

Rural towns and villages already devastated by the exodus of local manufacturers to lower-wage countries now face further economic marginalization if they don't build high-speed digital infrastructure. A report last year by the World Bank estimated that every 10-percentage-point increase in the availability of broadband boosted economic growth by 1.2 percentage points in developed countries. Better high-speed access may, in fact, be one of the tools Canada needs to improve its poor record of productivity growth.

The digital disparity has become such a concern that the CRTC has called for a public hearing in the fall to consider whether a new “regulatory framework” is necessary to “ensure all Canadians have access to affordable broadband service.” But the initiative provoked howls of outrage from the handful of major cable and telecom companies that dominate the industry. Executives at these companies argue that without huge government subsidies, they could never earn a profit building expensive wired connections to sparsely populated rural regions.

“It's a multibillion dollar challenge,” says Michael Hennessy, Telus's vice-president for government and regulatory affairs. “And there's no money in the federal treasury to fund such a challenge.” Indeed, Ottawa's $225-million contribution to building broadband networks to “underserved” regions is a pittance compared with the tens of billions of dollars spent on national digital programs in such countries as the United States, Britain, Australia and even such small economies as Portugal.

In the United States, for example, the Obama administration has already pledged an initial $7.2-billion (U.S.) to an ambitious broadband plan that some expect will cost as much as $30-billion. The plan calls for 100 million Americans to have access to super high speeds roughly 65 times faster than the traditional definition of “broadband.” It also offers an array of tax incentives for telecom corporations that upgrade their services.

Rob Faris, research director of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, says broadband Internet connections are “essential infrastructure for competitive nations.” Without access to these high-speed pipes, he says, communities “will be at a disadvantage.” (emphasis added)
Did you catch that quote, “And there's no money in the federal treasury to fund such a challenge.” But there was! We just spent billions on stimulus spending to stave off the effects of the big economic collapse but our choices did not include broadband in rural areas.

There have been a ton of rinks funded, to cement the Harper government's connection forevermore with hockey. And there have been scores of snowmobile trails funded under that half a billion dollar Recreational Infrastructure Canada program. Tourism is important, sure. But that funding might have been more smartly spent by improving rural broadband access. What good are all the rinks and snowmobile trails if the people who live there don't have the technological infrastructure to sustain a living in those communities? Priorities, demonstrated. Ensuring rural broadband access, maybe one of those big ideas for the future.