Wednesday April 10, 2013
Appeared in the Toronto Star on April 6, 2013 as Canada's Digital Divide Likely to Widen
The state of Internet access in Canada has been the subject of
considerable debate in recent years as consumers and businesses alike
assess whether Canadians have universal access to fast, affordable
broadband that compares favourably with other countries. A new House of
Commons study currently being conducted by the Standing Committee on
Industry, Science and Technology offers the chance to gain a better
understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of Canadian high-speed
networks and what role the government might play in addressing any
The study is ongoing, yet two issues are emerging as key concerns:
access and adoption. The access issue is no surprise as there are still
hundreds of thousands of Canadians without access to broadband services
from local providers. While this is often painted as an urban vs. rural
issue (with universal access in urban areas vs. sparse access or
reliance on pricey satellite services in rural communities), the reality
is that there are still pockets within major cities in Canada without
access to either cable or DSL broadband service.
Many of these communities are described as "uneconomic", since the costs
associated with building broadband networks are viewed as too expensive
given the expected return on investment. The government has funded some
programs to foster improved access, however more may be needed to
finish the job. This could include direct subsidies funded from revenues
obtained through the forthcoming spectrum auction or tax relief for
community-based broadband initiatives.
Interestingly, the committee heard opposition to such investment from
Xplornet Communications, a satellite Internet provider focused on rural
communities that appears to view public support for universal access as
competition. It told the committee that the repeated efforts to help
support broadband access in rural communities was the "definition of
insanity" and that it was better for the government to stop "distorting
the market" by allocating funding to communities that are otherwise
viewed as uneconomic for service providers.
Even if those pleas are rejected, the committee will face the challenge
of addressing a second, less discussed, problem with Canadian broadband:
adoption. Policies aimed at achieving universal broadband access have
typically adopted a "Field of Dreams" style approach in which it is
assumed that "if you build it, they will come."
Yet the Canadian consumer and business experience to date suggests that
this is not always true. On the consumer side, there are millions of
Canadians with access to broadband networks, but who choose not to
subscribe. The adoption failure is likely the result of many factors,
however, the data indicates that there is a strong correlation between
income and adoption.
Statistics Canada reports that 97 percent of Canadians in the top income
quartile have access to the Internet in their homes, but that number
drops to 54 percent 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 and programs aimed at closing this gap are
sorely missing in Canada.
An oft-overlooked problem is the poor adoption performance of Canadian
businesses. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce told the committee that 70
percent of small and medium sized businesses in Canada do not have a
website. Moreover, Canadian firms are investing in technology at rates
that are nearly half of those in the United States.
The government has acknowledged the concern (though it disputes the
Chamber's figures), but has done very little to address it. For
example, a federal program aimed at helping get businesses online has a
target of supporting only 600 firms with the hope that those companies
might share their experiences with others through word-of-mouth.
Further, when asked about targets for adoption within the next two
years, officials were unable to cite a specific figure.
The commonality between the shortcomings of access and adoption by both
consumers and businesses is that the government has failed to articulate
a digital strategy aimed at solving these problems. Until that happens,
it seems likely that the Canadian digital divide will continue to
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 email@example.com or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.
TagsShareWednesday April 10, 2013
Wednesday June 06, 2012
CRTC Chair Len Katz called out
Bell Canada and Bell Aliant yesterday for failing to extend broadband
to dozens of rural communities across the country as required by a 2010 decision.
Katz noted that in August 2010 the Commission directed the large phone
companies to spend over $420 million from their deferral accounts on
extending broadband to hundreds of rural communities. While MTS
Allstream and Telus appear to be on track, Bell Canada is not.
According to Katz:
Unfortunately, it's a different story
with Bell Canada and Bell Aliant. Nearly two years after we issued our
directive, Bell has extended broadband service to only three of its 112
communities. Broadband service is more and more of
a necessity for full participation in the digital economy and in our
life as Canadians. The funds were collected over a number of years from
Bell subscribers. I urge our friends at Bell to give a higher priority
to the needs of the people in these rural and remote communities by
accelerating their rollout plans.
The deadline to complete the broadband rollout is 2014. The deferral
involves hundreds of millions of dollars collected by large telephone
providers as surplus funds. In 2010, the CRTC ordered a portion be
refunded to consumers and remainder spent on broadband services.
TagsShareWednesday June 06, 2012
Wednesday February 01, 2012
Akamai has released its latest State
of the Internet Report
and it finds that Canada continues to slide in global broadband
rankings. Last year, the Akamai report was often favoured by those who
took issue with criticisms of Canadian broadband, claiming
it offered "an objective sanity check" on comparative broadband speeds.
If so, even Akamai now finds Canadian broadband declining when compared
to other countries.
Just six months ago, Canada was tied for
9th in average broadband speed. According to the latest
Canada now sits tied with Hungary for 14th behind countries that
include the United Arab Emirates, Romania, the Czech Republic, and
Ireland. On the peak connection speed, Canada ranks 19th in the world.
The data isn't very impressive on the mobile broadband metrics either.
The mobile broadband speed measured carriers around the world including
one Canadian carrier. The Canadian carrier ranked 68th worldwide for
average broadband speed, below carriers in every region of the world.
TagsShareWednesday February 01, 2012
Wednesday October 26, 2011
Akamai has released its latest State
of the Internet report. The report ranks Canada 13th
worldwide for average broadband speed, down from a tie for 9th in the
TagsShareWednesday October 26, 2011