Broadband needs a true measurement

The news looked pretty good, at first. “Canada continues to lead the G7 group of industrialized countries in broadband penetration,” was one of the bullet points in a recent report issued by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The report ranked 30 countries based on broadband subscribers per 100 inhabitants, and although Canada was only ranked No. 9, it was far ahead of the U.S. at No. 15 and even the U.K., which also failed to crack the top 10 at No. 11.

When University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist took a closer look at the numbers, however, he saw what he describes as a more disturbing trend. When you look at the relative growth rates from 2005 to 2006, Canada is actually lagging almost all the other OECD countries at 13 per cent penetration. The only place worse is Iceland, which bottoms out the list at No. 30.

IT managers might not ordinarily pay attention to these statistics, but a country’s use of broadband can say a lot about its ability to successfully take advantage of Web-based technologies. This includes everything from everyday e-commerce to more advanced tools such as videoconferencing and Web 2.0 services. If Canada fails to adequately grow the installed base for broadband, it may not be considered a truly global player by the international firms with which its enterprises wish to do business.

“Far from being an Internet leader, Canada is rapidly becoming a second tier country in terms of broadband penetration with limited broadband competition, hundreds of thousands of people with no hope of any broadband access, rising prices, and more examples of the violation of net neutrality principles than any other country in the world,” Geist lamented on his blog.

Geist has not been the only one poring over the OECD report. Apparently appalled by the country’s poor showing, U.S. coordinator of international communications and information policy David A. Gross sent a letter to OECD secretary general Angel Gurria, calling the report’s entire methodology into question. In particular, he objected to the OECD’s reliance on user subscriptions as a measure of broadband use. This measure would fail to take into account the thousands of people using Wi-Fi hotspots on college campuses or urban centres, or the enterprise users in both the public and private sectors who have the benefit of broadband at work.

“For this analysis to be sensitive to the variance in OECD members’ demographics, geography and technological trends, we believe the OECD must take into consideration, among other important factors, the remarkable non-subscriber access to broadband services,” Gross’s letter says.

Even if you factor in the hotspots and the enterprise use, governments such as Canada’s should not ignore the access issues that continue to plague citizens in many parts of this country. This report, however, shows the difficulty in accurately tracking technology adoption. The IT industry deserves to have a true picture of how big the broadband audience for its infrastructure efforts is, but this isn’t it.