Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Rural connectivity, or lack thereof

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is this week holding hearings in Ottawa to discuss the lack of broadband internet access across Canada's rural and remote areas. The big telecom companies like to say that they provide broadband service to up to 90% of Canadians who want it. I find these numbers fishy, but so far I am not aware of anyone who has checked; such claims are certainly not consistent with Statistics Canada reports of recent years on rural internet use. In any event, across large regions of Canada, you can't get so much as a cellphone signal, let alone find a house with broadband internet access. Indeed, an hour's drive west of Ottawa is Eastern Ontario's telecommunications black hole - a large triangular-shaped region north of highway 7 where cellphones don't work (you can see it here on this map of Bell wireless coverage).

The telecom companies have no intention of expanding their services into Canada's rural and remote areas. The reason is simple: there's more money to be made offering additional and enhanced services to urban Canadians than in signing up the rest of the country to basic services. The CRTC is right to look into this, but to my mind what is really needed is for the federal government to step up and ensure all Canadians have access to broadband. The Australians, Brits and Americans are all doing so. But unfortunately, our federal government saw it as being more important to use stimulus spending to repave existing roads and fix up hockey rinks than than to build a national digital infrastructure. The feds did earlier this year launch Industry Canada-led national consultations on the digital economy, and hopefully next year some sort of national strategy will emerge.

In the meantime, what about the millions of Canadians who can't use a Blackberry on their main street or don't bother using the internet because most content these days too big to squeeze through a 56k dial-up modem? Or who are told "congratulations, you have access" when internet computers are installed at the library 45 minutes drive from their home, which is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays? What do we do about them? There's a number of possibilities, and I will blog more about these later this month when I've finished up a study on rural connectivity for SSHRC. Until then, here's a few thoughts in today's Globe and Mail technology section.

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