Canada’s experience with a national digital strategy has been marked primarily by delays and underwhelming policies. The Conservatives took years to release their strategy as Industry Minister Christian Paradis did nothing, leaving it to James Moore to ultimately release a digital strategy without a strategy. Those hoping for the rejuvenated approach under the Liberals seem likely to be left disappointed. Indeed, Canada’s long road toward a national digital strategy may have come to an end with Budget 2016. The government has some very modest commitments on the digital front, but the budget appears to signal a shift in approach with the Liberals substituting a digital strategy for one focused on innovation. Addressing Canada’s innovation record is important (I’ll have more to say on the issue in a column next week), but emphasizing innovation is not a substitute for addressing digital policy.
The headline digital policy expenditure in Budget 2016 is a $500 million commitment over five year to support broadband in rural and remote areas. While further details are promised in the future, this commitment comes without any reference to an actual broadband goal or target. A commitment to universal affordable broadband access regardless of location is what is really needed (the CRTC may step in to do so as part of its upcoming basic services obligation hearing) but that is not in the budget. The problem is particularly pronounced within first nations communities, where reports indicate that almost half of households do not have an Internet connection.
Moreover, the $500 million commitment is heavily back-loaded with only $6 million promised for 2016-17 and $81 million for 2017-18. In other words, most of the broadband money won’t be spent until 2018-19 at the earliest, leaving some Canadians without affordable Internet access for years. Given the government’s emphasis on infrastructure spending, $6 million on broadband – the essential digital infrastructure – is embarrassing.
There are several other digital aspects to Budget 2016, but they are similarly underfunded. For example, the budget indicates that it is accelerating open data initiatives by spending $11.5 million over five years. Once again, the dollars are back-loaded with $2 million per year over the next two years. The increased funding is nice, but government will still spend just about ten cents per person on open data efforts. The spending on cyber-security of government systems also suffers from limited spending: $77.4 million over five years, but just $12 million next year and $15 million the year after that.
The Budget 2016 commitment to culture is overdue, but incredibly there is more new money allocated for museums next year than broadband, open data, cyber-security, enhanced access to information, and support for linking Canadian technology companies to global markets combined. The lack of a financial commitment to digital policy is noticeable and suggests that a governmental shift is underway that will emphasize innovation over digital concerns.