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RipNet CEO Kingsley Grant (right) and CFO Eric Rothschild stand next to one of the company's wireless tower near Brockville, Ont. (DAVE CHAN/DAVE CHAN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
RipNet CEO Kingsley Grant (right) and CFO Eric Rothschild stand next to one of the company's wireless tower near Brockville, Ont. (DAVE CHAN/DAVE CHAN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Rural Canada loses as politics and business fail to get broadband down the last mile Add to ...

"We had to have something that was not only good for today, but good for the future," says Mr. Pine, as he drives back from a meeting with the Akwesasne Mohawk council, where they discussed ways the council could use the new network.

The Caucus undertook its project because politicians and residents were convinced they couldn't rely on the private sector to bridge the gap. Big-name telecom companies are, after all, for-profit entities trying to earn money in a competitive environment: For them, deploying one technology over another - from expensive fibre-optic networks, to wireless or satellite connections - is a decision mandated by a solid business case, not a social goal. Further, these companies insist that future technological advances will connect any gaps. Two new satellites, for instance, scheduled to launch in 2011 and 2012, will boost capacity and are being marketed as "urban quality" Internet for remote areas.

Meanwhile, the country's telecom regulator is deciding whether to step into the breach. In late October, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission gathered industry insiders and interest groups in Timmins, Ont., to discuss the best way to bridge Canada's digital divide. As if to underscore the distances being considered, a roll-in of Northern Ontario fog delayed commissioners' flights and resulted in lost luggage. Several attendees showed up to the proceedings in jeans. At one point, the Internet connection broke down.

"The burning question now becomes whether the commission has a role to play in the provision of broadband Internet services where it is currently not available," Konrad von Finckenstein, the CRTC's chairman, said in opening remarks.

At the hearing, citizens' and advocacy groups asked the regulator to force companies to provide broadband service, as did some mid-sized providers. But powerful telecom companies such as Bell and Telus argued that mandating rural service would distort the market.

Others pointed out that even where broadband is available in rural areas, adoption rates are still low - mainly because of lower income and education levels - and suggested government consider boosting digital literacy and providing financial assistance such as vouchers. Further, while poor Internet access is usually portrayed as a rural problem, it also exists in Canada's largest cities. Mark Goldberg, a telecom consultant based in Toronto, said government policy should focus less on infrastructure and more on social barriers such as poverty. "I think we've got parts of Toronto that have more people who don't have [Internet]access than all parts of rural Canada," Mr. Goldberg said.

At the hearings, Len Katz, the CRTC's vice-chair for telecom, searched for a middle road among the conflicting opinions. But given the high cost of hauling network infrastructure into remote areas, the prospect of ensuring equal access across all of Canada seemed bleak.

Mr. Katz sighed: "Are we looking at a have and a have-not situation again?"

His question suggests a more basic query: Should high-speed Internet access be a human right? In Finland and Estonia, governments have declared broadband access a legal right and a fundamental government obligation. A poll for the BBC World Service of more than 27,000 people in 26 countries found four in five view Internet access as a basic right. And the telecom division of the United Nations, the International Telecommunications Union, has recommended all 192 member states develop and finance national broadband plans.

"Access to information is a fundamental right and access to the Internet is one part of that," Hamadoun Touré, secretary-general of the ITU, said in an interview. "We want to make that a universal obligation for all countries."

With no clear national strategy, provincial governments have taken different approaches. In the Atlantic provinces, for instance, governments anxious about dwindling resource-sector jobs subsidized large local companies to string advanced fibre-optic networks across entire cities, such as Fredericton.

Alberta has spent about $300-million to build the SuperNet, a province-wide fibre-optic "backbone" that connects more than 400 communities and their local institutions.

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