Digital Strategy Consultation’s Unasked Questions: Who Leads? Who Pays?

Last week Industry Minister Tony Clement unveiled the government’s much-anticipated Digital Economy Strategy consultation.  My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes the consultation is slated to run for two months and includes an online forum, face-to-face meetings, and a 40-page document that sets out key areas of concern. Five areas for discussion are identified: capacity to innovate, building a world-class digital infrastructure, growing the ICT industry, creating digital content, and building digital skills.

Skeptics will argue that the consultation is long overdue or perhaps even comes too late. Canada has inarguably lost considerable ground in comparison with many other countries around the world that were quicker to identify and implement digital strategies. While the delays have been marked by a gradual hollowing-out of the Canadian tech sector and sliding global rankings on network and wireless connectivity, Clement has firmly established himself as the most committed Industry Minister on digital issues since John Manley in the late 1990s.

Prioritizing digital issues is a first step toward remedying the situation, but a decade worth of policy neglect will not be solved overnight.  Despite lingering doubts about whether the government is listening – many Canadians fear that last summer’s copyright consultation may be largely ignored – those concerned with Canada’s digital future can ill-afford to stay silent on the sidelines. I hope to address some of the substantive questions raised by the consultation in a future column, but the more immediate concern are two unasked questions that cut across all issues – who will lead the strategy and how will the government pay for it.

Clement is the obvious point person for digital strategy leadership, yet the consultation document demonstrates that the issue is not so clear cut.  Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore and Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development Diane Finley both contributed to the document, leading to different points of emphasis among the chapters.  Moreover, many other ministers – including public safety, health, the environment, trade, and finance – could reasonably argue for a role in the process.

Given the broad scope of digital issues, Canada needs a single point of leadership with the ability to advance the strategy at the cabinet table and to cut across sectors. Many of our trading partners have created ministerial positions (or at least junior ministers) with responsibility for specific digital issues.  For example, Australia has both a Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research and a Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy.

If Clement is to lead, he needs clear responsibility and a mandate on the issue, not the prospect of cobbling together support from cabinet colleagues zealously guarding their turf after Canadians have spoken.

Even with leadership addressed, a successful national digital strategy requires funding.  The question of how the strategy will be paid for is omitted from the consultation but represents a basic pre-requisite.  While not all aspects of the strategy will require significant investments – many policy solutions involve minimal government expenditures – developing digital skills training programs, ensuring broadband access for all Canadian communities, and fostering the creation and promotion of Canadian new media are just some of the objectives that come with a price tag attached.

The most obvious source of funds comes from the consultation itself.  The digital television transition, which seems to have stalled in recent months but is still nominally set for August 2011, should lead to spectrum re-allocation and auction. The transition holds the dual promise of injecting new competition into the wireless sector and filling government coffers with billions in new revenue.  Those billions should be earmarked for the digital economy strategy, effectively enabling the strategy to pay for itself.


  1. Anarchist Philanthrapist says:

    Who Pays?
    The answer is simple. Us, the guys who work real jobs and don’t make millions a year. The bourgeoisie never really died out.

    So it will always be us that actually pays.

  2. Who Leads?
    The US of A, as in all Canadian matters. Who else?

  3. Does it matter?
    Recent history around the subject of public consultation would suggest that it is primarily a PR exercise.

    Of course, I ought not to judge the report that I have not read.

  4. So far we had outsourced the low level jobs, then the manufacturing, and these day the engineers.

    I think the priority should focus is to keep the jobs in Canada. Even if you have tons of people trained in the new “digital economy”, without the actual jobs they would still be on the unemployment lines.

  5. Heh
    Even if they stay in Canada they’ll get “outsourced” to immigrants and refugees due to our “wonderful” government mandates / bonuses for hiring immigrants 😛

  6. pat donovan says:

    guess where?
    please gentlemen, this is politics remember. AND copyright, etc, is a cultural imperative.

    that means quebec will be bought as much as possible, right?
    Even if sunflower seeds have to be declared grain seeds.

    Do you have ANY idea of how much of the electronics the feds have shoved/fostered dumped into quebec? research, media concentration, federal agencies, grant spending percentages?

    the only hope of another silicon valley in canada (other than pamela anderson) or a cultural revolution/fad will be the forlorn hope of quebec ever doing anything internationally popular.

    even a couple ‘incredibles’ movies would help.

    For copyright? quebec mashups /satires saving canada and the insanity of the proposed copyright laws? International
    twitter superstars? Youtube rockets? Given how much screaming happens over innocent remarks, (and the rest of their shackled culture) it’s dubious.

    “capacity to innovate, building a world-class digital infrastructure, growing the ICT industry, creating digital content, and building digital skills.”

    this is gonna be one of the worst excersises in cannibalism I’ve ever seen.


  7. The consultation document excludes considerations of copyright, anti-spam, and privacy and presumes that new legislation will be in place for these areas before any digital economy policy is rolled out. Can copyright, spam, and privacy really be separated from questions that affect the digital economy in such a tidy fashion?

  8. Laurel L. Russwurm says:

    Usage Based Billing does not bode well for Canada’s Digital Economy

    In his own words, CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein’s attitude is summed up in this quote: “I can see nothing else than the consumer has to pay more”

    The CRTC’s approval of Usage Based Billing will allow Bell Canada to charge UBB to customers of the Independent ISPs.

    Adding this additional layer of billing to Canadian Internet rates– already second highest in the world– means that suddenly Canadian Internet users will be paying much much more. Although it will not likely affect light Internet users, UBB will certainly impact negatively on Canadian Internet use. The heavy users, the tech people, software developers, medical researchers, innovators and oh– independent Canadian content creators. Suddenly the internet will cost much more for these heavy users.

    It isn’t just web surfing that will cost more; every small business website will have to pay a price for being successful.

    At minimum UBB will impact very negatively on true Independent content creators because overnight distribution costs will go through the roof. The Independent 30% of the Canadian Music Industry may well have to fold their tents and pack it in because success will be too expensive. And UBB will suddenly make it prohibitively expensive for Canadian film-makers to follow Nina Paley’s lead.

    Why? Because the CRTC has agreed with Bell Canada that the best thing for Canada is to make the internet more expensive so that Canadians will use the Internet less.

    If Mr. Clement truly wants to lead a serious digital economy consultation the obvious first step would be to overturn the Usage Based Billing ruling.

    The second step may well be a restructured CRTC. Canada deserves a CRTC that not only understands the technology, but insists on proof before believing everything Bell Canada tells them. You know, a CRTC that would actually perform their mandate to protect consumers.

  9. @Laurel: I am not so sure that I agree with you on this, at least on parts of this. Where an SLA is in place, this should indicate not only the level of service the ISP must provide, but also the maximum amount monthly or per diem that the customer is allowed to put through. Bell should have a SLA with the ISP; if the ISP has oversubscribed their capacity then it behooves them to update the SLA.

    In a sense, you are correct that this MAY trickle down to the subscribers of the ISP; in particular subscribers such as home users who don’t have an SLA with the ISP.

    The other case I can see where it would affect the users is where Bell is providing all of the infrastructure; the ISP simply acts as a reseller of bandwidth. Again, in this situation, how much has the reseller contracted for, and how much are their customers using? The big problem here is that you have resellers signing contracts with their home usage subscribers for unlimited caps… The phone system is not designed that way; it would be affordable if it was designed in such a manner that every phone in the country could be active simultaneously.

    I don’t agree that Bell should be able to charge the subscribers of their resellers UBB. That is why they engaged in a contract with the ISP. It would like you buying a car from a GM dealership and then getting another charge for the car directly from the shipping company used by GM which must be paid prior to delivery. You contracted for the car at a fixed price; you are already paying for shipping, why should the shipper get paid twice, especially if they undercharged GM for the cost of shipping?

    However, at the same time, why should the light users of the service be made to subsidize the heavy users, in particular the ones who are using the service outside of the parameters for which it was designed? In this respect I am referring to the people who put up torrent servers and leave the machine on day and night, and the people who use what is designed as a home service for business purposes (the tech people, software developers, medical researchers, innovators and oh– independent Canadian content creators 😉 These heavy users should be purchasing the more expensive business type services rather than the home service.

  10. Correction to my previous. What I meant to say was “it would be unaffordable if it was designed”…

  11. Laurel L. Russwurm says:

    We need to Stop UBB
    @Anon-K Clearly you don’t understand how it works.

    The CRTC made it clear that their approval of UBB had no correlation to consumer value. UBB was not approved because Canadians pay too little for the Internet. I expect even Bell knew that one wouldn’t fly.

    Bell’s argument for UBB– the one which was accepted by the CRTC– is that UBB will allow Bell to economically restrict Canadian Internet use by making it more expensive. UBB is a form of economic “traffic management”. The intent is to make Canadians use the Internet less.

    Yet it is the infrastructure that costs money; once in place the actual bandwidth costs very little. Current pricing provides handsomely for both bandwidth payment as well infrastructure maintenance and improvement. Even so, Bell has gone from leading edge to laggard in 15 years, wgich indicates lack of reinvestment.

    Why should heavy home Internet users have to pay more than they have contracted to pay?

    A great many content creators choose to create and share their work for free. They are not making money. It isn’t that they don’t want to make money, but that is how artists and creators usually start out. Sharing and working communally. Which is why many musicians put their work online for free. And artists. Photographers. Writers. Software creators. Game designers. Bloggers. Videographers. That’s how artists learn their craft and find an audience. They may be great. Or terrible. Eventually, they may make money. But maybe they won’t.

    Many small businesses begin as a sideline. The people starting them work at it in their spare time, using only their own personal resources, without getting bank loans or government grants. These people play around with their idea and maybe it works, and maybe it won’t. But unless and until these pursuits progress from hobby to business these creative and innovative Canadians have every right to home Internet service.

    These kinds of creativity and innovation are great for Canada. Stifling it is not.