Canada needs an innovation agenda


BIG TELECOM’S monopolistic control over the net is threatening to leave Canada with a last generation Internet. We have fallen behind many European and Asian countries, in terms of Internet access, speed and cost, and have toppled from second to tenth place within the 30 OECD* countries. Our broadband connection speeds have also fallen below the OECD average and in the area of cost versus speed, we rank 27th.

In the 2009 Federal budget, the Conservative government pledged to commit $225 million over the next three years to provide broadband to unserved communities. In contrast, Australia, which has a similar geographic breakdown to Canada, is reportedly committing AU$4.7 billion to a similar initiative. Not only is the Conservative’s commitment relatively week, it also does little to get Canadians hooked up to next generation networks.

Canada lacks what it needs most – a national plan. A new approach could put Canada on a path to a “New Deal” for broadband – a path to a better Internet for everyone, for free speech and open innovation.

Real competition

A national broadband plan should necessarily include the creation of real competition in ISP markets, which means creating a plurality of ISP ownership types, including municipal and community/non-profit ISPs. The fiber-to-the-home networks appearing in countries like the Netherlands and Denmark are often developed in partnership with local municipalities or utility companies. Municipalities, utilities and community organizations should be encouraged, and in some cases publicly financed, to enter the Internet service market.

Municipal governments are especially well positioned to inject much needed ISP competition. University of Toronto professor of Information Studies Andrew Clement points out that municipalities “have many critical assets, including significant financial resources, control over rights of way, as well as experience in developing and operating other complex, capital-intensive infrastructures, such as roads, waterworks, and transportation systems.” In fact, many municipalities own high-speed fiber networks that they can utilize relatively easily for Internet service provision.

Models that work

Within our borders, we have workable models for Internet provision – Fredericton, New Brunswick’s municipal/co-op ISP is a great example. In 2001, Fredericton’s city council created e-Novations, its own fiber carrier. Fredericton later launched the Fred-eZone wireless network offering free connectivity across the city. Fredericton now provides access to its fiber backbone and a city-owned organization handles installation and general services.

The Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) named Fredericton one of the Top Seven Intelligent Communities of 2007. ICF presents the award to “communities or regions with a documented strategy for creating a local prosperity and inclusion using broadband and information technology to attract leading-edge businesses, stimulate job creation, build skills, generate economic growth and improve the delivery of government services.”

Open access

Another way to increase ISP competition is to mandate Bell and other network operators to provide open access to independent ISPs, making these telecom companies more like utility companies rather than Internet gatekeepers with competing services. Bell is fighting the open access option tooth and nail and has even resorted to lobbying the federal Cabinet to overturn the existing, relatively weak equal access rules.

According to Teksavvy, if Bell’s lobbying efforts are successful, it will “inherently all but remove unlimited Internet services in Ontario/Quebec and potentially cause large increases in Internet costs from month to month.” The ramifications of this would have Bell and other big telecoms increasingly calling the shots in terms of how much independent ISPs are allowed to offer their customers, thereby further strangling those that compete with Bell’s own Sympatico service.

The time is right

With the world economy in a slump, now is the time to mandate net neutrality and open access and to replicate municipal ISP models that work in cities and towns across the country. This will create jobs in the short-term, while also sustaining social, cultural and economic innovation in the long-term.

On July 6, the CRTC is holding a hearing on “traffic management.” In lieu of a viable national plan, Canadians should tell the CRTC to support the open Internet and an innovation agenda. Get involved at

*Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

Steve Anderson is the national coordinator for the Campaign for Democratic Media. He contributed to Censored 2008 and Battleground: The Media, and has written for The TyeeToronto Star, Epoch Times and Adbusters. Reach him at:

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