Communications for Social and Economic Development -- A National Inclusion Strategy for Broadband Connectivity and Effective Public Use
Proposal to the 2009 Alternative Federal Budget Process (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives)
By Marita Moll for Telecommunities Canada
Canadians have always known that communication networks are essential to social and economic development. In the days of “plain old telephone service” (POTS), Canadian telephone service was world class. To make sure distant, hard-to-serve areas were connected, telephone providers operating in lucrative urban areas were required to participate in cross-subsidization programs. In addition, the importance of telecommunications to national sovereignty and security was acknowledged by establishing Canadian ownership requirements for telecommunications providers. However, over the last two decades, telecommunications policy has been increasingly driven by an industrial strategy linked to technological innovation and competitiveness. As a result, regulations were dismantled, and with them, a national vision of the importance of the sector to Canadian identity and prosperity.
This policy direction is not having the intended results. A recent review of telecommunications policy found that "Canada has not remained at the leading edge of development and deployment in the two key growth areas of the telecommunications sector -- broadband and wireless".  According to the most recent OECD report, over a five year period, Canada has moved from 2nd to 10th place on the list of connected nations with only 26.6 broadband subscribers per 100 inhabitants. Survey after survey shows Canadian broadband quality and access falling behind countries in Europe and Asia. 
In order to reestablish its position nationally and internationally, Canada needs a national strategy that promotes social and economic development by making broadband connectivity ubiquitous. This will require substantial infrastructure investments. In addition, it will require new investments in community-based programs that help Canadians make effective use of the new technologies and an ongoing process of consultation that ensures that the diverse needs of communities are met.
Extending Broadband Connectivity
“Canadians increasingly recognize that broadband is not simply a ‘nice to have’ technology. It is a fundamental requirement for many smaller communities and the prosperity of Canada as a whole,” says Infrastructure Canada’s Building Canada Fund background paper. However, abundant broadband capacity at affordable prices is still a distant dream for 3.5 million Canadians. In 2007, 37% of Canadian communities, many of them in rural and remote areas, were still unserved by broadband.
The mis-classification of low bandwidth connections as "broadband" is also a problem. Many communities currently classified as having access to broadband connections need to be upgraded if they are to make effective use of many Internet applications. Further to this, if we want to compete in the global economy, Canadians will need to be able to provide content (upload) as well as download at high speeds.
To improve Canada's declining public telecommunications infrastructure, starting 2009-10, and over a period of 5 years, we will invest $2 billion in a pan-Canadian infrastructure project to extend broadband connectivity beyond its current boundaries. The goal of this strategy is to ensure that every Canadian has access to sufficient broadband to allow effective participation in the social, political and economic life in the 21st century. While much current infrastructure needs to be revisited, connecting rural and remote populations will be a priority.
In the communications world, today’s fast lane is tomorrow’s slow lane; so, a National Inclusion Strategy does not end when all communities are connected. Technologies are constantly evolving. Our strategy recognizes that a long term commitment is required to again become one of the world’s most connected nations.
Supporting a National Public Access Program (NPAP)
Once access to broadband connections is established, there can still be many barriers to the effective use of these new tools. Among these barriers are: low income and education levels, language and cultural concerns, and literacy and disability issues.
The National Inclusion Strategy will expand federally-supported programs directed towards those with limited access and ability to use the technology. The national network of 3,500 community technology centers that help more than 100,000 people per day  to incorporate new technologies into their lives will form the backbone of the NPAP. These sites and their young facilitators, along with a legion of volunteers, provide job search and software training, technology literacy programs, access to community services, and cultural integration opportunities. They partner with the local private and public sector to provide services and experienced personnel in many different areas – from film editing to website building. Along the way, thousands of youth gain valuable job experience. Both internal and external evaluators have agreed that this very cost-effective program has been a success story for years. In this budget, support for existing centers will be expanded and a program to restart funding for new centres will be established.
The following are examples of needed enhancements to the existing program:
In the process of establishing new centers, rural and remote areas will be assessed independently from urban areas, recognizing the differences in their requirements.
We will invest $250 million over 3 years to support new and existing NPAP sites.
The National Inclusion Strategy recognizes that there is a great deal of variation, both in terms of connectivity and community support requirements, in different locations. To be effective it must be flexible and provide local solutions to local needs. Above all, this program must be community-driven – with communities defining their requirements and the strategy needed to support them. A process of on-going and wide-ranging consultations with local stakeholders will ensure that all regions, rural, remote and urban, are connected and receive the support needed to make effective use of broadband connectivity.
A sum of $750,000 will be set aside to research and verify community broadband connectivity and support requirements.
Budget for broadband connectivity and effective public use strategy:
1. $2 billion over 5 years for extending broadband connectivity.
2. $250 million over 3 years to support new and existing National Public Access Program sites.
3. $750,000 fund for community consultation processes to research and verify community broadband requirements.
4. Conservative Party of Canada. (2008) “Ensuring a modern economy.” News release, Oct. 11, 2008. http://www.conservative.ca/EN/1091/107195
5. Gerald Chouinard. Program Manager. (2007). IEEE 802.22 Standard for Rural Broadband; State of Development. Communications Research Centre Canada presentation . http://www.crc.ca/files/crc/home/research/rrba/RRBA_Presentation_29Nov07.ppt
6. The current average download speed in Canada is 7.6 mpbs.; in Japan 63.6; in France 17.6 (Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. (2008). “2008 ITIF Broadband Rankings” http://www.itif.org/files/2008BBRankings.pdf ; OECD has made 256 kbps (2.5 mbps) the bottom threshold for broadband penetration statistics. (OECD. (2008). Broadband Growth and Policies in OECD Countries.Full Report. http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/32/57/40629067.pdf)