Cities searching for broadband answers

Representatives from municipalities both large and small used a recent roundtable discussion in Toronto to urge Ottawa to play a larger role in the rollout of broadband services to their regions.

Entitled Where the network and the community meet: Assessing the impact of telecommunications infrastructure on community development, the discussion was held during the Communications 2001 show earlier this month. Hosted by SMART Toronto, a group representing the economic interests of Toronto’s technology region, the discussion included speakers from Bell Canada and Rogers Communications Inc., as well as representatives from the City of Toronto and other surrounding towns and cities.

When the issue of what kind of role the federal government should play in the rollout of broadband services to Canadian communities was raised, the frustration on the part of the roundtable participants soon became evident.

Luigi Ferrara, the president of DXNet and vice-president of programs and service at the Design Exchange, asked where the country would be now if the construction of roads had been left up to the people who drive. His analogy drew a chuckle from the crowd, but his point got across: it is not the sole responsibility of those who use the Internet to build access.

“We need strategic government investment in infrastructure – not to do all of the work, but to enable the companies to do the work,” Ferrara noted. He added that governments in other countries are taking action, and it’s time for Canada to do the same.

Paul Howarth, Bell Canada’s assistant vice-president, Ontario public sector, noted that Bell has invested a significant amount of money when it comes to broadband access, but added that “it’s obviously not enough.” Despite the effort put in monetarily by Bell and other telecom companies, the fact that both residential and business customers are still unsatisfied means that more work has to be done, he said.

For some communities, the need for broadband is ever-pressing, and municipal funding is not always enough. Susan Chase, the manager of information technology for the Town of Newmarket, Ont., explained to the room that one of her community’s main concerns “is to ensure that the town has access to broadband, but both the residents and businesses – not just the businesses.”

Part of the problem for Newmarket, which sits about 45 km north of Toronto, is that even though it is a rural town, it is not considered as such. Chase said that despite its distance, Newmarket is still considered a part of the Greater Toronto Area, so it is turned down when it applies for any government grants.

She added that the vastness of the country seems to be one of the bigger problems for the carriers.

For Christine Raissis, the director of economic research and business information for the City of Toronto, the focus should be on intensifying growth. Even a large city like Toronto, where it would be expected that enough infrastructure is in place, is facing economic and access issues.

Raissis noted that Toronto has a lot of land, “sitting, ripe and waiting to be used.” That is land that could be utilized to push the growth of access by putting infrastructure in place, as well as help to bring more businesses into the city. She noted that putting lines in everywhere is not a cost-effective solution. Areas that have the biggest need for high-speed access, such as business centres, should be getting it first, she said.

But that is not always an easy thing to do. David Ballam, investment and client development officer for Oakville Economic Development Alliance Inc., explained that some businesses that need or want services are simply not able to get them due to conflicts such as buildings blocking access or telecom companies not being able to offer services. Ballam said there has to be efforts made by all involved parties.

For their part, the federal government is making some moves in the area of broadband. The National Broadband Task Force, created by the Minister of Industry, has been investigating the issues and challenges involved in broadband access. It has outlined out a strategy to enable it to meet the government’s goal of making broadband access available to all communities in Canada by 2004.

Recent findings from the Task Force indicate that 1,203 communities (representing approximately 75 per cent of the Canadian population) have access to DSL and/or high-speed Internet cable service, but a combined population of 6.4 million Canadians has no access to such services.