In the economic race among nations, widespread Internet access, and its fast, reliable and cheap provision to the most people, is a prerequisite for success. And Canada is falling behind. If we are to compete, it will take new policies, new vision from corporations, the federal government and its regulators, and a national collective will to compete.
The wake-up call comes from a new study on broadband practices and policy around the world. It was conducted by Harvard University's Berkman Center for the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which is releasing a national plan to ensure high-speed Internet access is available throughout that country.
One passage should puncture Canada's complacency: "Canada … is often thought of as a very high performer, based on the most commonly used benchmark of penetration per 100 inhabitants. Because our analysis includes important measures on which Canada has had weaker outcomes - prices, speeds and 3G mobile broadband penetration … it shows up as quite a weak performer, overall."
Almost no Canadian home can tap the ultra-fast speeds offered by, say, fibre-to-the-home services, which are available in 44 per cent of Japanese households. Canada ranks with Poland, Hungary and Mexico as laggards in the availability of 3G, which allows the distribution of video content over mobile phones and to new devices such as Apple's iPad. Canadians are already familiar with the expense of most Internet access services.
As a result of these shortcomings, the study ranks Canada 19th worldwide in overall Internet access.
There is no magic recipe, but some prescriptions are worth heeding as Canada develops its Internet strategy. The report recommends open access policies, in which companies that build infrastructure for mobile and fixed broadband access are encouraged or required to lease that infrastructure to the competition.
But in Canada, limits on foreign ownership and inconsistent CRTC decisions have lowered the amount of competition needed to spur new and better offerings. There was less stimulus spending on projects to support more widespread Internet access in Canada than there was elsewhere. Decisions on related policy issues, such as copyright reform, have been delayed. A national conference on the digital economy generated buzz - ministers Tony Clement and James Moore are reputed to "get it" - but yielded few results. Our best hope to lead on Internet innovation, the Long-Term Evolution platform being developed by Nortel as a successor to 3G, is now largely in foreign hands.
If we do not act with haste, the innovations that could employ our future work force could well pass us by.