Businesses need break to meet digital report deadline

The nation’s business leaders and the general public have been given four more days to tell Ottawa what the country’s digital economy strategy should look like.

Industry Canada said Friday that today’s deadline for comments is being extended to July 13.

Industry minister Tony Clement gave the public eight weeks to submit opinions on the issue to stimulate a debate. However, as late as Wednesday only a handful of organizations had filed submissions, and none were from the biggest information, technology and communications companies who would be at the centre of any strategy.

In a statement Friday, Industry Canada said that some organizations preparing lengthy submission had asked for the extention.

One of the latest submissions was from Saskatchewan’s phone company, SaskTel, which says any digital strategy should only focus on rural and remote parts of the country, because there’s enough competition in urban Canada to assure high speed Internet access.

These areas should be assured of “robust” speeds, the report said. While it didn’t define a speed, it did say that to meet a target of supporting full motion interactive video would need 5 Mbps today and likely 10 Mbps by 2017.

While Ottawa has injected money for specific regions, that “has not resulted in the continuous growth of broadband in rural areas,” the report says. In fact it dismisses the Harper government’s current program of injecting $225 million to improve broadband access rural and remote areas as “inadequate.”

Instead, fees from spectrum auctions should finance rural and remote broadband programs, says the utility,as suggested by a recent Senate report. (The last spectrum auction raised over $4 billion dollars. The next auction, for spectrum in the 700 Mhz range, will likely be held in 2012.)

Rather than back a particular facilities-based carrier, SaskTel says that in rural areas Ottawa should order local incumbents to open their network infrastructure to competitors, as recently suggested by the Senate committee report.

“This would develop competition in services where facilities-based competition would be unlikely,” says the submission.

SaskTel also dismisses any hope that foreign telecom companies will invest in rural areas. At the same time it complains that despite the Harper government’s 2006 directive to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to rely on market forces when possible, new forms of regulation are being worked on.

If implemented these will stymie investment needed for a digital economy, SaskTel warns. In particular it cites recent rulings on the pricing of fibre optic connections to residences, which the utility feels could be made worse if the CRTC orders incumbent carriers to give competitors wholesale access to fibre networks. The commission will give its decision on that issue after holding a contentious hearing last monthOttawa should be “more vigilant” in ensuring its agencies follow the 2006 policy direction, SaskTel says.

It also says that to encourage innovation from entrepreneurs, any digital economy plan should also make sure there will be no “complicated licencing schemes” for the Internet or wireless. There have been calls from some groups to add fees to new media to help finance the creation of Canadian content.

For its part, Telus Corp., the incumbent phone company in B.C. and Alberta, said Ottawa “should not be diverted by misleading studies which attempt to make Canada appear to be a laggard” in telecommunications. The country show “relatively good performance in terms of network readiness,” it says, given that Canada has the highest household broadband penetration among G8 nations.

It’s brief also says competitors shouldn’t be given wholesale access to networks built by others.

“The world class platforms of tomorrow will not and cannot come from a single and shared network,” it says, “as true digital innovation demands variety and competition at the network level as well as at the application level. Experiments like the Australian multi-billion dollar state expropriation of networks won’t yield the desired results for Canada and this path should not be followed by the Government of Canada in the current macro-economic climate where it is already saddled with a $50 billion deficit.”

Telus also complains about “the ever increasing fees and taxes that underpin the traditional broadcasting system as well as spectrum fees which are already multiples higher than those of major trading partners … They must be significantly curtailed in the drive for a successful digital economy strategy.”

Also on Friday, Microsoft Canada submitted 20 recommendations around which a digital economy strategy could be created, including expanding research and development incentives for the information and communication technology (ICT) industries. “Canadian firms consistently invest less in ICT than their competitors in other developed markets,” the submission notes, citing figures from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “In fact, Canadian ICT investment severely lags that of the United States and other economies like Great Britain and Sweden, and is trending downward.”

Governments should also provide small and medium enterprises with access to education about ICT, Microsoft says.

While the nation’s digital infrastructure needs to be beefed up, Microsoft says Ottawa shouldn’t set minimum standards – maximum speeds by a certain date, for example – although some intervention may be needed to ensure people in remote areas aren’t forgotten.

The software company also calls on Ottawa to identify “competing or unnecessary obligations” that create barriers to the seamless use of digital technologies across different types of networks. This is particularly of concern in cloud computing where a technology like VoIP can raise “challenging questions” about the application of regulatory rules to online services, Microsoft said.

 (An earlier version of this story wrongly said the deadline for submissions had been extended to July 15. The correct deadline is July 13.)


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