Digital Strategy Is Government’s Phantom Menace

Spread the love

“Me’sa so happy to get 5-megabit broadband!”

The year was 1999 and nerds around the world were abuzz for something they had been waiting a seeming eternity for: a new Star Wars movie. Anticipation and expectations couldn’t have been higher going into George Lucas’ long-promised return to the pop culture phenomenon he had set in motion with the Original Trilogy back in 1977. But then, The Phantom Menace happened. And things got even worse with the next one, Attack of the Clones. Lucas redeemed himself somewhat with his third prequel, Revenge of the Sith – I know this because I just rewatched them – but in the end, there was no denying it. The new Star Wars movies were terrible.

And so it is with the equally long-awaited digital strategy from the Canadian government, titled Digital Canada 150. Believe it or not, there are actually a number of similarities between the movies and this bit of government policy. Nerds like me have been waiting for it forever and it has indeed been in the works for a long time. But most crucially, it’s also abjectly terrible.

Divided into five “pillars” – connecting Canadians, protecting Canadians, economic opportunities, digital government and Canadian content – there’s almost no actual “strategy” in the short, 25-page document, which is perhaps why that word isn’t actually in its title despite it being presented as such. Rather, Digital Canada 150 is more a collection of bullet-point reminders of the government’s recent efforts across a number of technologically-related subjects, such as its development of an app commemorating the War of 1812 and the lowering of corporate taxes. And oh yes, there are lots of pretty pictures and useful factoids, like the one that predicts internet usage is going to increase over the next few years. Good thing that’s in there.

There are a few hints of things to come, like a promise to “work with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to develop a plan to unbundle television channels and ensure cable and satellite providers offer Canadian consumers the option to pick and choose the combination of television channels they want,” and the introduction of “new anti-money laundering and anti-terrorist financing regulations for virtual currencies,” which is obviously aimed at the likes of Bitcoin. But otherwise, there are few concrete goals set out and no evidence that any of these isolated efforts are in any way connected to the larger idea of accelerating digital usage or growth by Canadians.

One of the few actual targets is to bring internet access of at least 5 megabits per second to 98 per cent of the population by 2019, but this is a bad plan for several reasons. Firstly, the CRTC already had such a goal in place, except it was supposed to be achieved by 2015, meaning that the government is delaying it another four years. But perhaps more importantly, it’s far less ambitious than what other countries are doing. As University of Ottawa internet law professor Michael Geist points out, Canada’s goal is well behind the likes of Australia, Germany and Sweden in both speed and target dates. Many countries are aiming for speeds of 100 megabits or more. Indeed, the only country that appears to be as unambitious as Canada with its broadband plan is the United States.

Inevitably, the issue of size arises in such discussions. Canada is, after all, one of the biggest countries in the world in terms of land mass, yet it has a relatively small population. That makes it harder and more expensive to roll out services here than in, say, a tiny country like Denmark, right? This is the rationalization that has been used for Canada’s high wireless prices and it has indeed been trotted out for wired home connections too. It’s also one the government has apparently accepted to rationalize its efforts.

Except that it’s nonsense. Canada is, in fact, one of the most urbanized countries in the world, ranking 37th overall with more than 80 per cent of the population bunched up together in cities. The chart below shows urbanization rates among developed countries, according to the United Nations’ population division:

And here’s a chart that strips out all the tiny OECD countries with fewer than 10 million people:

Given the relatively high concentration of the Canadian population, it should actually be easier or more efficient to roll out advanced telecommunications services here than in Germany, the United Kingdom, Norway, Austria or Switzerland, yet all of those countries outstrip Canada in terms of broadband goals and wireless performance in general.

In that vein, Canada’s broadband goal is amazingly lame – it’s the veritable Jar Jar Binks of the entire digital strategy. The government should be shooting for those 100-megabit-plus speeds that others are going for, yet instead it’s settling for what’s barely considered broadband in places such as Pakistan.

As a whole, there is one other way in which the Digital Canada 150 is similar to Star Wars. George Lucas at least had the good sense to sell Star Wars to Disney and allow someone else to have a crack at producing something that fans might be able to appreciate. With the thoroughly lacklustre digital strategy taking four years and three different industry ministers to produce, it’s looking increasingly clear that this is not the government to take Canada forward into a digital future. Observers interested in such matters can’t be faulted for hoping that someone else takes up this task.