Finance Minister Jim Flaherty will rise in the House of Commons next week to deliver the most anticipated federal budget in years. The subject of town hall meetings, corporate consultations, and political sparring, the budget will be closely watched by all Canadians anxious for a long-term plan to address the current economic crisis. While financial support for hard hit industries are a given, one of the most important elements in the budget will be the significant expenditures on infrastructure, which is viewed as a powerful job creation mechanism with benefits that can last for decades.
Money toward roads, bridges and other conventional infrastructure projects may generate some short-term employment, but my weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) argues that the opportunity to take a broader perspective on infrastructure should not be missed. Indeed, this budget offers a rare chance to put critically important technology projects that have languished for years back on track. These include:
Broadband infrastructure. Following repeated failed attempts to implement a national broadband strategy that guarantees access to high-speed networks for all Canadians, the Flaherty budget provides the ideal opportunity to address this neglected issue. Indeed, frustrated by years of federal inaction, several provinces recently pledged to support their own broadband initiatives, recognizing the economic importance of a connected population.
With Canada gradually slipping down the global broadband rankings as other countries benefit from better, faster, and cheaper options, committing serious dollars to a national broadband infrastructure would create jobs and lay the groundwork for new commercial, cultural, and educational opportunities.
Research infrastructure. Canada has steadily increased funding for primary research at universities and colleges across the country, yet it continues to lag in implementing policies to ensure that all Canadians have access to results of that publicly-funded research. Other countries, including the United States and the European Union, have moved toward mandated "open access" policies that link access to research funded by taxpayers.
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research established an open access policy last year, but billions of research dollars are still spent in Canada without any guarantees of public access. Flaherty should use the budget to confirm the government's commitment to public funding for health, science, and social science research, but require Canada's research agencies to implement open access policies that offer better hope for a return on the sizable investment.
Broadcast infrastructure. Canada's broadcasters are lagging far behind their counterparts in the United States in transitioning from analog to digital over-the-air broadcasts. Canada has set 2011 as the deadline for the transition, but CRTC Chair Konrad von Finckenstein and Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore have expressed concern over whether Canada's broadcasters will be ready on time.
The current economic climate will likely make broadcasters even more reluctant to invest in new digital transmission equipment, yet failure to act now will almost certainly result in a missed deadline. Flaherty should offer targeted financial support for the transition (creating both immediate jobs and a digital broadcast infrastructure), particularly since the broadcast infrastructure is directly linked to. . .
Wireless infrastructure. Companies that shelled out over $4 billion for new wireless spectrum may be regretting their investment given the current economic conditions, but the availability of new spectrum did not end there. A prime reason to shift the broadcast infrastructure from analog to digital is that it will free up valuable spectrum for other purposes.
Flaherty and Industry Minister Tony Clement should throw their support now behind using some of the new spectrum for innovative services by establishing an unregulated space (known as "white spaces") open to all. Moreover, they should follow the U.S. example by mandating certain openness standards in the use of this spectrum, thereby providing telecom investors with greater visibility on future policies and fostering a more competitive, consumer-friendly wireless industry.
Cultural infrastructure. The subject of considerable worry from the cultural community, Flaherty should use the budget to assure the cultural industries that there will be a freeze on cuts to cultural funding, thereby delivering much needed cost certainty to major film and television projects.
Now would also be a good time to dust off proposals to establish a national digital library, another area where Canada has fallen far behind. The investment would create immediate jobs and generate long-term cultural, economic, and educational benefits as a new generation enjoys immediate online access to Canadian works.