As urban Canada races to build high-speed broadband networks to keep up with business and consumer demand for efficient communications, outlying regions are being left behind with slow, unreliable or costly connections.
This growing digital divide makes rural economic prosperity increasingly elusive. Canadians living in rural areas already have incomes well below their urban counterparts (14 per cent lower than the national average, according to a recent study that used earlier census data), and the earnings gap exists in every province. In areas that have an abundance of oil, potash or other key commodities demanded by the world's economic powers, fast Internet connections might not be so important, but for the rest, they're crucial to pulling in new employers. Communities that cannot plug into the high-speed digital economy cannot attract new businesses that rely on basic services such as electronic invoicing, Internet conferencing and large digital file transfers.
Ted Woodhead, vice-president of regulatory affairs at Telus and telecommunications consultant Laura Bradley, as well as Globe and Mail reporters Iain Marlow and Jacquie McNish were online for the discussion on Monday .
The digital disparity has become such a concern that the CRTC has called for a public hearing in the fall to consider whether a new "regulatory framework" is necessary to "ensure all Canadians have access to affordable broadband service." But the initiative provoked howls of outrage from the handful of major cable and telecom companies that dominate the industry. Executives at these companies argue that without huge government subsidies, they could never earn a profit building expensive wired connections to sparsely populated rural regions.
"It's a multibillion dollar challenge," says Michael Hennessy, Telus's vice-president for government and regulatory affairs. "And there's no money in the federal treasury to fund such a challenge." Indeed, Ottawa's $225-million contribution to building broadband networks to "underserved" regions is a pittance compared with the tens of billions of dollars spent on national digital programs in such countries as the United States, Britain, Australia and even such small economies as Portugal.
Ted Woodhead heads the broadband policy file at Telus's office in Ottawa.
Laura Bradley works with rural communities are applying for public funding for broadband initiatives and with governments devising broadband policies and programs.