When Barack Obama launched his administration's efforts to expand health insurance in the United States, he said all Americans had a right to the same quality of health insurance as their elected representatives in Washington. Here's a different goal Canadians need to strive for: Every Canadian ought to have the same Internet and wireless access as their MPs in Ottawa.
As you read this, hundreds of MPs and thousands of public servants are busily typing away with their thumbs on or near Parliament Hill. And yet, there are places an hour's drive from Ottawa with no cellphone reception and nothing better than dial-up connection to the Internet. I can think of no other national capital, with the exception (perhaps) of Mongolia's, where a similar situation exists.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is currently holding hearings to determine whether rural and remote communities are entitled to the same level of connectivity as urban centres. All Canadians have an interest in this issue, not just the six million who live in rural areas and small towns. Setting a goal of broadband for everyone is in our national interest, just as the railway, the post office, the RCMP and the Trans-Canada highway were in years past.
Urban Canadians take for granted the economic and social advantages offered by high-speed broadband and wireless networks. There's an assumption in today's economy that you're connected to a broadband or high-speed wireless network. Online shopping, online banking, using your cellphone when your car breaks down in the middle of the night, entering the Hockey Night in Canada MashUp contest: all inconvenient or out of reach for millions of Canadians.
Businesses rely on image-laden websites to serve their customers, as do provincial and federal governments. You know the ads with the slick guy who buys hockey tickets with his smartphone and the ordinary guy who can't make an important phone call to his boss? Your MP is the slick guy with the rinkside seats in the digital economy, rural Canadians the ordinary ones who can't get into the game.
Everyone wins when rural Canadians gain access to high-speed connections. Rural businesses have access to a much broader range of potential suppliers and customers, increasing their contribution to the nation's economy and employment. Specialized medical services from rheumatology to psychiatric counselling to early stroke intervention can be delivered via the Internet to rural areas, reducing the need to bring patients to the city at great public expense. Rural young people acquire the latest electronic gadgetry and the skills to use it, reducing the urge to leave for the city and enhancing the employment skills of those who do. These are just a few of the benefits that accrue to us all.
Most important are the lost opportunities in human capital and innovation. We have entered an age when innovation no longer refers only to engineers with pocket protectors working in research parks. Give millions more Canadians high-speed connectivity and you create millions more potential innovators overnight. A teenager in Beaver Flat, Sask., or Slate Falls, Ont., may only use high-speed Internet and a smartphone to chat with her friends and share pictures from last Friday's party, like most city kids do. Then again, she might develop the next killer app, creating wealth and jobs for Canadians we can't yet imagine. Give tens of thousands of rural Canadian kids like her those tools, and one or more of them will become that next great innovator.
There are many options for bringing broadband to all Canadians. Plenty of other countries are doing it for their rural citizens, and we can, too. We can order the telecoms to do it, and they will (grumbling loudly, of course, and trying to pass as much of the cost on to their customers as they can). We can provide public subsidies to companies that bring broadband to the countryside, just as we provide public subsidies to companies that bring oil and electricity to the city. We can form public-private partnerships, perhaps taking the Alberta SuperNet as a national model. Whatever we do, we must take that first critical step and make this a Canadian priority.
It shouldn't have to fall to the CRTC to make this decision. It's in the national interest. Our MPs need to step up and make this call. Perhaps we need to shut down BlackBerry service to Parliament Hill for a day to get their attention.
Robert McLeman, an associate geographer at the University of Ottawa, is completing a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded report on rural connectivity as part of national consultations on Canada's digital economy.