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Canada’s Internet Sucks, and the Government Has No Real Plan to Improve It

Canada has a plan to develop its digital economy, which would be great news if the strategy weren't so comically lacking in ambition.
April 15, 2014, 4:50pm

Screenshot of Digital Canada 150, an astoundingly disappointing document via.
Remember back in college when you had an overdue paper to write for a class you didn’t really seem to care much about? Did you ever just “repurpose” a decent paper you’d already written last year, sprinkle in a few new items so it’s not plagiarism (it’s not, amiright?), and hand that shit in on your way to the liquor store? Well, you’re in good company, because this is exactly what the government of Canada has just done with its new Digital Canada 150 Strategy.

After spending an excessively long time in the works, Digital Canada 150 is the government’s vision for developing Canada’s digital economy over the next five years. Every other industrialized country has some kind of strategy to promote their own digital sector, so it’s about time that Canadians had their own national plan to get some of that sweet, sweet internet money.

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There are five pillars in the 26-page document: connecting Canadians, protecting Canadians, Economic Opportunities, Digital Government, and Canadian content. Taking a look at the Economic Opportunities section, I counted 10 bullet points of “new” items. One of these was the already-announced Canada Jobs Grant, which landed the government in hot water when it ran expensive television ads extolling the program’s virtues before the program had even been agreed upon by the provinces whose funding it poached. This glaring example of more PR-before-policy stands among some other sensible, if unambitious, items.

If you take eight minutes to read it all, it’s easy to tell that the plan we’ve just been handed is a collection of profoundly modest goals and reheated policy announcements. In one emblematic example, the government actually delayed its own telecom regulator’s goal to make 5 Megabit per second broadband accessible to 98% of Canadians by 2015 (apparently over half a million folks don’t deserve even slow internet).

5 Mbps is the government’s standard for acceptable internet speed in Canada in 2019. Just how slow is 5 Mbps? For comparison’s sake, people are getting download speeds of over 300 Mbps on their phones in South Korea, and Google Fiber is delivering 1000 Mbps download and upload speeds to lucky residents in select American cities. Townsfolk in Olds, Alberta, are also set to enjoy 1000 Mbps from a municipally-owned internet service. If 5 Mbps is the best we can reliably deliver to Canadians by 2019, we’d better get ready for some less-than-world-leading economic outcomes.

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To be fair, those of us now living in big Canadian cities may have access to a comparatively speedy 25 or 50 Mbps connection. But even this urban standard falls flat when we compare ourselves internationally. Countries like Romania, Latvia, and South Korea are now roundly beating us on upload and download speeds. This disparity is reflected in world governments’ future targets for download speeds.   Digital policy expert Prof. Michael Geist put together some data from the OECD, and here’s what some other countries’ speed targets were three years ago:

Austria

| 100% access to 25 Mbps

Australia

| 100% premises, 93% homes, schools and business to 100 Mbps

Denmark

| 100% access to 100 Mbps

Finland

| 99% within 2 km of network permitting 100 Mbps

Germany

| 75% access to 50 Mbps

Greece

| 100% household access to 100 Mbps

Hungary

| 100% access to 30 Mbps

Luxembourg

| 100% access to 1 Gbps

Slovak Republic

| 100% access to 30 Mbps

Sweden

| 90% access to 100 Mbps

United States

| 100% access to 4 Mbps

As Geist shows, Canada’s 5 Mbps goal seriously lacks oomph. You might think that this could reflect a certain challenge: our population is relatively small compared to our enormous land mass. But as journalist Dave Nowak rightly points out, Canada is actually quite urbanized compared to other countries:

“Given the relatively high concentration of the Canadian population, it should actually be easier or more efficient to roll out advanced telecommunications services here than in Germany, the United Kingdom, Norway, Austria or Switzerland, yet all of those countries outstrip Canada in terms of broadband goals and wireless performance in general.”

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On the very first page of Digital Canada 150, Prime Minister Stephen Harper boasts: “We are now ready to take our place as the most technologically advanced nation on the planet.” What planet is he referring to?

The strategy doesn’t establish a set of speed targets for urban areas, rural areas, schools, universities, or businesses. Instead, it just delays an already existing 5 Mbps target and assumes it will be satisfactory across the country. To try to give them some credit, let’s assume that the government has full trust in the existing market players like Bell and Rogers to deliver world-standard internet in cities. If this is the case, why not make this clear in the strategy? The whole 5 Mbps target just smacks of hollow PR designed to make us believe there’s a policy when none actually exists.

Why are speed targets important? Internet speed matters for more than just wholesome consumption-centered activities like Netflix or watching other people play video games on YouTube. Small and medium-sized Canadian businesses are actually so hampered by slow upload speeds that it's often faster and cheaper for them to copy data to hard drives and physically deliver them to clients.

Sadly, the internet seems poised to remain slower in Canada than in much of the rest of the world. And as for the rest of the strategy?

Geist’s analysis suggests there’s not much to get hopeful about: “For a strategy document, it is curiously lacking in actual strategy. The government updates Canadians on what it has done and provides some insight into what it plans to do, but there are few new strategies articulated.” Geist points to the UK’s Digital Britain report, which clocks in at ten times the size of Digital Canada 150. Bigger isn’t necessarily better, but the strategy opines about competing in a global economy and sets out the importance of the government’s role in making that happen.

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One important omission from the Digital Strategy is any discussion of net neutrality, i.e. the concept of treating all internet traffic equally. A recent court decision in the US basically killed net neutrality in that country, allowing internet service providers to provide faster access to their clients for sites willing to pay more money. Now, companies like Netflix are being forced to enter into agreements so that their content (which competes with the cable offerings of ISPs) isn’t unfairly slowed down.

The consequences of letting net neutrality die are pretty shitty for free speech and innovation, to say the least. If Comcast doesn’t like what you’re saying (or offering for sale), there isn’t much to stop them from slowing access to your site down to a crawl. This is a horrible environment for fostering new inventions, ideas, businesses, and services. That explains why the European Parliament recently voted to protect net neutrality by law for all EU member states.

Canada has a pretty good track record on net neutrality, which is good. But Canada’s big content-owning networks, which are also Canada’s major ISPs, seem to be all too ready to protect their legacy interests by charging more for internet traffic that threatens their lucrative broadcasting business.

Given the pivotal importance of net neutrality for digital innovation, you’d think it might deserve a mention in the strategy that’s supposed to guide our digital economy policy. But the issue gets passed over in favor of announcing the production of eight more Heritage Minutes episodes, presumably about how the economic Action Plan saved the country from certain ruin.

I spoke with Steve Anderson, Executive Director of OpenMedia.ca, a digital rights nonprofit group, about what could be different in this plan.

“The government just collected more than $5 billion from auctioning off wireless spectrum, half of which could be invested back into our digital economy to really expand fast broadband access and address the digital divide. Instead, they’ve announced about $500 million in two new programs, which just isn’t enough and will leave Canadians in the slow lane,” he said.

Anderson was also very concerned with the government’s half-hearted commitment to online privacy. Nowhere in the strategy was any mention of reviewing the massive collection of Canadians’ data by CSEC or its spy agency partners in the Five Eyes. When even President Obama is embarking on a plan to rein in a few of the most invasive practices of US spy agencies, you’d think that Canada’s government would at least pay lip service to this important issue.

As we’ve seen before from the Harper government, what we have here is a political announcement dressed up as something substantial. As Professor Geist puts it: “Other countries offer far more sophisticated and detailed visions for their digital futures [and are] 5 to 10 years ahead of Canada” in doing so. After years of waiting, it’s not an encouraging sign when our bureaucrats come up with a very short PDF of reheated announcements and delayed, embarrassing targets. Canadians counting on having a future job that involves the internet or computers should give this strategy a failing grade.  @chrismalmo