Home > government, internet > Canadian broadband: the time for complaining is over

Canadian broadband: the time for complaining is over

I had to take a deep breath before writing today’s post, mostly to get all the four-letter words and other obscenities out of my system. There are few things that make me as angry as Canada’s abject failure on broadband issues, a situation that was highlighted again on Wednesday by our neighbours to the south and their creation of a plan to get high-speed internet to the poorest Americans.

If you missed the news, the Federal Communications Commission introduced a plan that will give households in the National Student Lunch Program access to broadband for $9.99 a month. Moreover, the FCC’s Connect 2 Compete program will also get these families access to inexpensive computers ranging from $150 to $250, plus training on how to use them and the internet. This is far from just a government initiative, though - the broadband part is coming through a partnership with cable companies such as Comcast, with the likes of Microsoft and Best Buy providing the other stuff.

It’s probably hard for anyone reading this (on the web) to imagine what life would be like without the internet, but for those millions of Americans, it’s reality. That’s why, for the most part, the FCC’s plan is being lauded. Lefty types like it for obvious reasons while the righties like it too because it targets those 5.5 million homes that don’t - and most likely can’t - subscribe to broadband anyway. The plan doesn’t take money out of internet providers’ pockets and it stands to add millions of people to what was once considered the economy of the future, but what is in reality the economy of the now.

Here in Canada, we can only look on in envy - and anger, because our situation is similar. Canada has an estimated 500,000 households that can’t afford broadband, which is not necessarily a case of whether telecom companies are charging too much for the service, but rather a simple fact of poverty. The Canadian government’s record in all things broadband, meanwhile, is dismal, particularly in comparison with our G8 partners. Along with the U.S., every other country that counts has taken definitive steps to get all of its citizens connected:

Japan: Not surprisingly, Japan is the world’s most advanced internet nation, with the cheapest and fastest broadband available (only South Korea comes close). It all started with the e-Japan plan, a strategy unveiled way back in 2001… you know, when Canada was still a world broadband leader. Looking at that link, which goes to the government’s e-Japan website, is a lesson in irony given how absolutely ancient it looks by today’s standards.

France: The French government launched its France Numerique plan back in 2008 with an aim to making the country a leader in the digital space by 2012. The comprehensive plan tackled everything from getting universal access to broadband by 2012 to better video game production. While France is getting close to assessing how well it has done, Canada hasn’t even gotten in on the ground floor.

Germany: The Germans have aimed high with their broadband plan, announced in 2009. The first phase looks to get 75% of the country speeds of 50 megabits by 2014 while the next phase aims for 100 megabits to 50% and 50 megabits to another 30% by 2020. It’s an ambitious goal, but it’s always good to shoot high because if you fall short, you’re usually still miles ahead of where you started.

Italy: The Italian government also detailed its broadband strategy in 2009, with a plan to get universal connections speeds of 2 megabits by 2012 and 20 megabits by 2020. Work continues apace, with the government leading and organizing industry to implement the plan.

United Kingdom: The UK’s plan of getting every home a connection of at least 2 megabits per second by 2015 isn’t exactly ambitious, but it’s still better than what Canada has, which is diddly squat.

Russia: The good news is the Canadian government is not alone in the G8 in being asleep at the broadband wheel. The bad news is, it’s joined by Russia, which has apparently done about as much - the government has talked a bunch about broadband, but otherwise initiated nothing. Simply put, there’s really no level on which Canada wants to be compared to Russia.

Depressing, isn’t it? And that’s just the G8, never mind what’s going on in other European and Asian countries, plus Australia and New Zealand, where governments are actively spending billions of dollars in overseeing the construction of next-generation networks that will, with any luck, be accessible by all of their citizens. A quick read of this Wikipedia page or the OECD’s overview is enough to bring any Canadian who cares about the future of their country to tears.

In the end, we can only complain about this for so long. Blaming the government or telecom companies for holding back or doing nothing about Canada’s digital development clearly isn’t getting us anywhere - it’s obvious both have failed the country - which is why people from across the spectrum are starting to speak up and/or taking action. Greg O’Brien, editor of telecom and broadcast news site Cartt.ca, has an excellent overview of the issue.

As he points out, solving this problem starts with getting computers to those who need them most. Renewed Computer Technology is a non-profit charity that specializes in taking used corporate machines, wiping them clean and then redistributing them to schools, libraries and others who need them. If you or your company has computers that need to be disposed, check with this organization to see if they can be put to use.

Similarly, telecom consultant Mark Goldberg is trying to organize a “One Million Computers” movement that seeks to address the same issues. While Mark and I disagree on many things, this isn’t one of them. All Canadians should have a computer and have internet access, period. If you think you might be able to help or have any ideas, feel to contact him or me through our respective websites.

The broadband side of things is trickier to solve. The answer, when industry and government is failing the people, may lie in the people bringing things closer to home, as the recent fight in Longmont, Colorado illustrated. The town of 80,000 was tired of getting substandard service from ISPs, so it held a referendum and - despite hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying by Comcast and other opponents - succeeded in getting the right to build its own fibre network. How it goes from here remains to be seen, but it’s an inspirational win for fans of democracy (and who isn’t one?).

If this issue does bother you, get on the phone to your MP, MPP or local councilor and urge others to do the same. Let them know that Canada can’t afford to be left behind.

Is this sort of local engagement the future of broadband development? Will internet access boil down to people doing it for themselves? Unfortunately in Canada, it’s sure looking that way.

Categories: government, internet
  1. Marc Venot
    November 11, 2011 at 1:19 am | #1

    As Russia, Canada has a huge landmass.
    It’s probably still not economically reasonable to provide the smallest communities spread out with up to date fast internet.
    But it’s also a total shame that even in the major centres using adsl at the commercial price the lag make many multiplayer games unplayable online.

  2. Jody
    November 11, 2011 at 2:33 pm | #2

    There are a lot of places in Manitoba that are mostly dial-up communities. For years the internet provider MTS has made exclamations that they are working to give the province high speed through out when communities not even 15 minutes out side of Winnipeg are still on dial-up. It’s like living in the stone-age. Even cellphone reception suffers from tons of dead zones in rural Manitoba. And there’s really no excuse. My parents pay $40 a month for dial up internet that can’t even connect half the time… And what’s the point anyways? You can barely check your e-mail with out it crashing!! Maybe one day there will be a better solution for them…

  3. November 11, 2011 at 2:37 pm | #3

    What makes this sting even more is that back in the early 90s we were so advanced here in Alberta. I remember being the first person in my city to get a Videotron cable modem - it was incredible. So much for the pole position…

    Now I live in a small subdivision 10 minutes north of Edmonton and half a mile away from a massive fiber trunk yet my “high speed” consists of a 3Mbit down and 512Kbit up wireless connection - I pay double what people in the city pay for 50Mbit. What ever happened to the Alberta SuperNet connecting communities?

    ho hum….

  4. November 11, 2011 at 3:04 pm | #4

    What a depressing but sadly accurate post. It’s hard to believe Canada used to rank near the top when it came to broadband penetration and speed. That was then, this is now. The question is how will anything change given we have a happy and fat oligopoly running the show.


  5. jensen
    November 11, 2011 at 3:12 pm | #5

    What happened to the billions from the first spectrum auction? Did it go into general revenue?

    I believe the money from the first and next spectrum auctions should be allocated and help drive digital telecommunication advancements.

  6. A. Wong
    November 11, 2011 at 3:32 pm | #6

    This article may be of interest to you!


  7. November 11, 2011 at 3:36 pm | #7

    Thanks for that link A. Wong. They actually finished the supernet in 2005? The “last mile” strikes again it seems. Great to see that the renewed interest in this by the powers that be. Hopefully they can get some traction on this!

  8. jaydee
    November 11, 2011 at 5:23 pm | #8

    Canada has an estimated 500,000 households that can’t afford broadband. Really! Only 500k. I would have thought milions. Get your stats straight please.

  9. Al Worobetz
    November 11, 2011 at 5:46 pm | #9

    Keep it up, Peter. All of us Canadians need to know about where we stand with the rest of the world on Internet issues.

    Good work, man!!!!

  10. Ron
    November 11, 2011 at 7:51 pm | #10

    In think Marc Venot has it right- land mass, small communities spread far apart, enormous geographical terrain issues to overcome. I don’t quite understand why the author is comparing European countries with much higher pop/sqKM. He’s comparing watermelons to kumquats. How about comparing countries with similar challenges in term of terrain and population densities as Canada- New Zealand comes to mind?
    To me this item seems an erroneous and misleading bit of research and writing.

  11. Rob Wat
    November 11, 2011 at 8:36 pm | #11

    I’ve been trying to locate some articles on the amount the Canadian Government (i.e. Canadian citizens) has given Bell and Rogers in tax breaks, grants, etc. so far, to help with their building of an internet/data infrastructure. Anyone have some good links?

  12. Brian
    November 11, 2011 at 9:34 pm | #12

    The buck stops where government stops paying so it looks to me. I am using wireless now from Bell, was with Rogers that gave 25Kbs download / 13Kbs upload speeds. Bell gives 3000KBs download / 600 to 1500KBs uploads speed. Bell is $10.00 dollars more then Rogers in price rates. Xplornet was giving 480KBs download speed / 125KBs upload speeds for $70.00. When signing up with xplornet they would route your speed through local towers for the first month when your free usage was up. Then get what ever when they changed the services after 30 days. I did a annomous search on http://www.auditmypc.com to see where i would JOIN the world-wide-web. They were using local towers outside a city 70 miles away,or in the next province next door. Then the government of this province i live in came out with 1500KBs download speeds as a set services speed for the people of New Brunswick. Government here paid xplornet to get set up here. I say that the federal government can say nothing about the powers of the big ISP’s of Canada. So until people stand together there shall not be anything done on anything. People in a big city get throdled down sometimes but can use a lot of there download speeds. I pay $70.00 dollars for anything over 5Gigs a month i use, plus pay 0.015 cents for every MB i use over 5GBs of use. Then i would be in a higher yet bracket if going over 10GBs of data. I have friends in the USA that i play army war games with. Or i need to update my pc or download a 495MB file to update my game to play online with them. So with all said here, i have to say THANK YOU for your website. And am very happy reading what people have to say on here. This is the bare truth here,so i like sending NEWS like this to my many friends. P.S. I have to say the old story is this: Government have there hand into anything, then they will mess it all up. Until this changes with them or the big ISPs of caring more about there shareholders interests then nothing is going to chance ever. If Government votes for such rules then they will be out of power, when they let this marvel of the world changes of the internet in Canada. I thank you all that reads what is on this website of yours.

  13. derek
    November 12, 2011 at 12:39 am | #13

    Thanks for your erroneous and misleading comment! Get your atlas out and read teh article again - it clearly states that NZ and Australia (a better comparison) are actively investing in new networks. Canada has no excuse except that recent Governments have been happy to leave it all to the private sector players and allow them to rip us all off! It is disgraceful that in the past decade Canada has dropped from being a leader in IT accessibility to nowhere today!

  14. Brian
    November 12, 2011 at 7:14 am | #14

    I have, up to now, been solely motivated to complain about lack of service and cost of connectivity in rural areas. The Nations standing in world connectivity is a most embarasing good second reason to brow beat our political leaders. Look first at the real needs for IT connectivity. (I am surprised at the complaints focused on gaming???)
    In rural areas IT service for education, healthcare, elder care and policing of rural areas could be made cheaper and mor efficient if our politicians did not behave like thier counterparts in a developing former socialist state.
    Before Ottawa became a much larger amalgamated city, we were still then only 12 minutes from the City limits. Even now being within the city limits for several years, most service is dial-up speed or less. $70.00 to $100.00 per month, no garrantees of servicve. What we have Bell is about to cut off. In the rural fringes of this beautiful city, the seat of Canadas Govt. only tax bills, regulation changes, tax hikes, fines, zoning notices and composting information, reach us at very High speed. However, Internet connectivity…?
    Industry is indifferent to the few on the edge, Local politicians as well. Although taxpayers dollars were poured into I-Providers pockets to pay for “rural broadband for all”, there is no solid connectivity and no accounting for the tax money. No accounting for the public assets that were sold off to build that infrastructure.
    The greater good and the political good has been served. You can argure that rural life is a choice, yes. The tax rate in rural Ottawa per SQ Foot is general above a core area dwelling. I can swallow that in exchange for the lifestyle. The difference… dont charge me, dont spend my tax dollars on the greater good and ignore me. From reading trade journals and blogs it appears this theme is repeated in rural areas all over Canada.
    The shame of it is, real connectivity and some inginuity can save rural service delivery costs. Where the rubber hits the road, the broad-bandits wont make enough on it, and the number of lost votes is not worth return phone calls or e-mails.

  15. Brian
    November 12, 2011 at 7:22 am | #15

    Mayor Watson, Councilor Chantiri, City Broadband Speialists, stop passing the question around, public answers please.
    Leave some info on a blog, post a crumb of info less than two years old on the Ottwaw web site. I would go to town and connect some where just to get some form of information or news…

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