Putting Some Substance into Canada’s Digital Economy Penske File

Industry Minister Christian Paradis paid a visit to the Economic Club of Canada in Toronto last week to deliver a speech focused on the digital economy. As has been the case for months, the speech was short on specifics but filled with platitudes about a forthcoming digital economy strategy that “challenges our innovators” and “drives new technology.”

Yet despite promises of a strategy by the end of the year, the issue remains the government’s “Penske File”, a source of regular speeches and much “work” but few tangible results (for non-Seinfeld watchers, the Penske file is a reference to a non-existent work project). In fact, with Paradis telling attendees that the government’s role ” is to give our best and brightest the opportunities they need to succeed and then get out of the way” the strategy may be about as ambitious as the character George Costanza was on the Seinfeld show.

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that Canadians have waited years for a digital economy strategy. Paradis should dispense with the well-worn cliches and opt for an ambitious plan that generates genuine excitement and broad public support.

If Canada is to re-emerge as a digital economy leader, the starting point should be universal computer ownership combined with affordable broadband Internet access. The government has supported extending broadband access to rural communities in recent years, but there still remain thousands of Canadians who do not have access to affordable high-speed Internet services. Reliance on the private sector has failed to provide universal affordable access and the government should acknowledge the need for the public funds to address the issue.

Mere affordable access is not enough, however. As millions of Canadian students head back to school this week, it is worth remembering that many do not have computers in their homes. The solution lies in a digital economy strategy that brings together the technology and telecommunications sector to develop a plan that ensures universal access to computers and broadband Internet by 2015.

Ensuring Canadians have the necessary access is only the first step in the strategy. They must also have the skills and digital literacy to use the technology effectively. This will require a concerted effort at working with provincial and local groups to provide the necessary knowledge and tools. These programs should be integrated into schools and available more broadly within local communities.

Once Canadians are online, the government can’t get out of the way until it establishes the legal framework that fosters public confidence in e-commerce and the online environment. Paradis should bring the languishing anti-spam legislation into effect by finalizing regulations that have been missing-in-action for the past year and introduce tough privacy reforms that mandate disclosure of security breaches backed by penalties for non-compliance.

Government also can’t get out of the way until it has established a framework that fosters a fiercely competitive Canadian digital economy. Paradis told the Economic Club that “we need to take more risks, think more creatively and act more boldly to claim our place in the global economy.”

Exhorting business to take risks isn’t going to make Canada a digital economy leader, however. Creating a competitive market will, which necessitates removing foreign investment restrictions in the telecom and broadcast sectors, rejecting persistent calls to “regulate the Internet”, enforcing net neutrality regulations, and using the forthcoming spectrum auction to encourage new entrants and greater competition.

There will be additional elements to the strategy – government transitioning to electronic delivery of services, creating a digital economy leader around the cabinet table, and finding ways to pay for funded programs stand out – but after years of delays, Canada needs fewer speeches on the digital economy and more substance.


  1. Unfortunately…
    …even if we had computers in every home, and universal broadband, it’s difficult for people to obtain “the skills and digital literacy to use the technology effectively” if everything is locked down, preventing experimentation. The DRM rules in C-11 move us in the opposite direction, encouraging companies to lock us into “walled gardens” where we get to consume what they deem us worthy of, rather then having the freedom to create and experiment for ourselves. Cory Doctorow’s “war on general-purpose computing” say it all way better than I can.

  2. Ray Saintonge says:

    “we need to take more risks” seems like sound advice, but Paradis should begin with the risk of doing something himself.

  3. At $25 no reason most kids can’t have a PC
    The new little Raspberry Pi and similarly capable little machines in the $25/$50 range make a lot of creativity possible, back to the early 80s and programming in the schools:

  4. Russell McOrmond says:

    universal computer usership?
    You suggest the starting point for a digital economy should be “universal computer ownership”. Would you settle for “universal computer usership”? I think with TPMs in C-11 the current government has already suggested they don’t support computer ownership, and want the manufacturers to retain ownership control while Canadians can only be mere users.

  5. PCNA
    I hope you get the attention of the Minister of Industry on issues of access since they certainly didn’t listen to the citizens of Canada when they begged that the CAP (Community Access Program) not be axed.

  6. BC Hydro smart meters and no choice in BC
    A comment by Seth at about the BC Smartmeters system could provide affordable broadband to everyone.

    Another possibility, at least in the BC Lower mainland would be to run the major backhaul under existing rapid transit lines. Maybe that could be a new funding source for Translink just waiting to happen.

    One oversight made is the lack of carrier hotels in BC. There’s only one, and it’s full. Trying to get affordable internet access requires the ability for competitors to be able to offer it in the first place, not just be limited to the incumbent carriers of Shaw or Telus in BC. Shaw isn’t terrible, but it frustrates me that there is no FTTH available out here, yet Bell Aliant offers it east of Ontario. And no Cellular Mobile Internet is not even a remotely affordable choice. The best offering is Wind Mobile for 10GB at 35$/mo. Data plans on mobile don’t even begin to try and replace a landline broadband connection. They’re sufficient for email, maps and occasionally some pictures. You’re damned if you ever visit a website that has streaming video advertisements.

    If you look at Shaw’s offerings, they offer one token affordable plan at sub-broadband speeds, and you don’t get broadband speeds (2Mbit up and down) until you get the 50Mb/70$/mo plan that has more than 0.5Mbit upstream. And yes Shaw’s plans are still more affordable than what is offered in central Canada.

    The fact that Bell, Rogers, Shaw and Telus (and others like Bell Aliant, Videotron, Sasktel, and Cogeco) don’t compete in the landline markets in every province is why there is unaffordable internet to begin with. Why is it that Rogers offers wireless but not cable in BC? Rogers used to be here at some point in time. Think about it.