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Cutting Community Internet Access Program Highlights Absence of Digital Strategy

Appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on April 17, 2012 as Canada Lacking Digital Strategy

The recent federal budget was a hefty 498 pages, but it still omitted disclosing the decision to eliminate funding for the Community Access Program, Canada's longstanding initiative to provide an Internet access alternative for those without connectivity. The world has changed dramatically since the CAP was first launched in 1995, but the decision to cut it without establishing alternative solutions for low-income Canadians who are not online is a disappointing development that highlights yet again the absence of a national digital strategy from Industry Minister Christian Paradis.

The CAP was once a foundational element in the federal government's effort to connect Canadians. In the late 1990s, many did not have Internet access at home and wireless data plans were still years away. Today, the majority of Canadians have residential broadband access as well as wireless connectivity through their smartphones or other devices.

The decision to cut the CAP therefore does not come as a surprise. In 2010, it appeared the government was set to cancel the program, bolstered by a 2009 evaluation conducted by the Audit and Evaluation Branch of Industry Canada. The evaluation found that the program was "less aligned with the current priorities" of the government and that "it may have out-lived its usefulness as a means to bring the Internet to communities across Canada."

When letters were sent to local programs notifying them of the impending cuts, the local communities expressed their concern to elected officials. The outrage led then-Industry Minister Tony Clement to quickly reverse the decision, chalking up the notification letters to a funding misunderstanding.

Changes in Internet access rates may have made the CAP an obvious target for elimination, but fostering universal access to the Internet is more important than ever. As governments embrace open government initiatives and shift toward electronic delivery of services, ensuring that all Canadians have Internet access becomes an absolute necessity.

Yet the 2010 Statistics Canada Internet Use survey found that many low-income Canadians do not have Internet access at home. While 97% of Canadians in the top income quartile have access, that number drops to 54% for those in the bottom quartile. In other words, nearly half of all Canadians with incomes of $30,000 or less do not have ready access to the Internet.

For those Canadians, the issue is not whether Internet access is available but rather whether it is affordable, particularly when combined with the need to invest in computing equipment. The CAP helped address the affordability gap by ensuring that thousands of Canadians - even those without a computer or who found that monthly access charges were beyond their means - would have access to the Internet.

The CAP may have needed retooling, but there remains a Canadian digital divide that should be addressed. By comparison, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission teamed up with cable and technology companies last year to launch Connect-to-Compete, which promises to bring computers and Internet access to low-income households.  

The program, which will officially launch in September, includes a commitment from the cable companies to offer $10 a month broadband Internet access to homes with children that are eligible for free school lunches. Moreover, families can purchase a refurbished computer for $150 or a new one from Microsoft for $250. For those without computer expertise, Best Buy's Geek Squad will offer basic digital literacy training in 20 cities around the country.

For thousands of Canadians that relied on the CAP, its elimination raises the real prospect of being cut off from the Internet. The failure to identify alternatives that support affordable access to Internet services and computers, along with the necessary skills development, places the spotlight once again on Canada's missing digital strategy.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at mgeist@uottawa.ca or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.

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Access Copyright and AUCC Strike a Deal: What It Means for Innovation in Education

Access Copyright and the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada announced an agreement yesterday on a model licence. The deal calls for a royalty payment of $26 per full time student, below the $45 Access Copyright was seeking at the Copyright Board (and below the $27.50 in the Toronto/Western deal), but well above the current rates. While the agreement is just a model that leaves it to the individual universities to decide whether to sign, it is hard to imagine that AUCC did not obtain some support from its member institutions for it before reaching agreement.

It is difficult to provide detailed comments on the agreement since the text is not yet available and the $26 figure is not based on anything more than a negotiated figure reflecting what two parties anxious to settle were willing to pay or accept. The reality is that it is primarily a product of a broken Copyright Board model that incentivizes lofty demands that set the bar higher for either a negotiated settlement or a Board rate setting exercise. It is not based on the actual value of the repertoire nor on the copying on campuses that fall outside of fair dealing, public domain, or the myriad of alternate licenses that already grants compensated access to thousand of journals and books.

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What a Difference a Year Makes: Bell on Local Television Channels

Last year, when Bell's purchase of CTV was undergoing regulatory approval, the company went out of its way to emphasize its support for the struggling local channels it was acquiring as part of the deal. At a CRTC hearing on the issue in February 2011, company officials stated:

the 'A' channels, which have struggled tremendously over the last several years, require assistance to continue to maintain their current programming levels. They also require investment to be broadcast in high definition, which will improve 'A' channel programming quality and allow for HD simulcasting. Together these investments will help ensure that 'A' channel local programming can be sustained and can remain available to these communities.

The same hearing included an appearance from Randy Goulden, the Executive Director of the Yorkton Film Festival in Yorkton, Saskatchewan. Goulden extolled the virtues of a Bell - CTV merger for local CTV channels:

CTV's local television stations are a great part of the Canadian broadcasting system. They provide invaluable promotion and publicity of our initiatives and our programs, raising our profile to a level we would not have the opportunity to enjoy without their support. The Yorkton Film Festival supports CTV's acquisition by Bell as it will make CTV a stronger company and that, I believe, will enable organizations like mine to continue to grow.

Just over a year later, Bell now says the Yorkton station is potentially on the chopping block. As the CRTC conducts hearings on the Local Programming Improvement Fund and the Supreme Court of Canada holds its hearing on the fee-for-carriage, Bell says that "we won’t continue to fund chronically unprofitable stations, tiny stations in tiny little towns." Yorkton is on that list, along with at least five other stations (which Bell says could grow to 10 stations if the LPIF shrinks). Bell promised to keep the A channel stations operational for three years during the regulatory process, but no similar promises were made for local CTV channels. In other words, the owner may have changed, but the game remains the same - use threats to close local channels as the basis for demanding additional revenues through regulation.

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European Parliament INTA Committee Draft ACTA Recommendation

The draft recommendation from the European Parliament INTA committee on ACTA has been posted online, confirming the committee "declines to consent to conclusion of the agreement."
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The 2012 Olympics and Branding Police

The Guardian reports on the astonishing restrictions at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, which include "branding police" to ensure only licensed brands appear at Olympic venues.
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