“We get reheated, warmed up leftovers from the last five years,” says one industry observer

The Harper government’s new digital policy has received mixed reviews from some industry observers who hoped Ottawa would be daring in its vision for the country.

In particular there was criticism that the government didn’t go far enough by setting a faster minimum download speed that most Canadians will have access to. Ottawa merely promised to ensure that 98 per cent of Canadians will be able to subscribe to a provider offering at least 5 Mbps. Most of the country meets that now; the government promised to spend just over $300 million to ensure all but two per cent of Canadians in remote areas get that.

The government also said its goal is to  place Canada “among the world leaders” in digital adoption, rather than the country will be the leader.

“Looks like Canada is prepared to be a slower follower  rather than a pioneer,” said Iain Grant, managing director of the Montreal based SeaBoard Group telecommunications consultancy.

“Five megabits could be woefully inadequate in five years.”

On the other hand Grant said the promise that there will be competitive wireless prices “is a good thing,” while vows to act on limiting domestic roaming fees and new privacy tools are also important. The policy’s goal of increasing wireless competition would be a “huge step as well,” he added.

Overall he’s not disappointed with the policy. ‘The fact that (previous) wireless strategy might have been foundering on the rocks of commercial agreements which can be offset by government action on domestic roaming is very important, and I applaud them for getting down to it.”

Industry James Moore announced the Digital Canada 150  on Friday after the Conservative government first promised a national strategy several years ago.

But while the announcement did cover a wide swath of policy issues and revisited passed legislation and funding commitments related to the digital economy, it was lacking in terms of an overall strategy and falls short of what other G8 countries have accomplished, critics say.

For OpenMedia.ca, an open Internet advocacy group that encourages citizen engagement in digital policy issues, much of Moore’s announcement was old news.

“We get reheated, warmed up leftovers from the last five years,” says David Christopher, communications manager at OpenMedia.ca. “It just amounts to a repackaging of stuff the government has already announced.”

In his Toronto Star column, Michael Geist notes some successes of the announcement, such as demonstrated government interest in digital issues and plans to enact more legislation on the topic. But he also notes what is missing from Moore’s plan.

“For a strategy document, it is curiously lacking in actual strategy,” he writes. “Measurable targets and objectives typically guide strategy documents, yet there are not many to be found in Digital Canada 150.”

One of the main planks of the government plan committed to connecting Canadians, namely through a $305 million investment to help extend the availability of 5 Mbps broadband Internet to rural areas, reaching 280,000 Canadian households. That will mean 98 per cent of Canadians are able to subscribe to broadband Internet service, according to the government.

Bill Hutchison, chairman of I-Canada, an arm of the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) that encourages municipalities to become intelligent cities, said the policy has “some good initial steps to make Canada competitive.” But, he added, “we’re still not moving as fast as some leading nations

While it’s good Ottawa wants to ensure rural areas get broadband of 5 Mpbs urban Canadian homes have access to an average of 50 Mbps. Meanwhile leading nations have carriers offering 1 Gbps.

It is true that urban download speeds have been increasing in the past two years, he said, but they’re growing faster in many other countries. Failure to set an urban speed target is “almost as if they’re too afraid to tackle the cities because the big guys (carriers) are there.”

“It is positive they’re trying to roll out broadband but it doesn’t go anywhere near far enough to tackle the problem,” he says.

In his column, Geist is also critical of the 5 Mbps goal. It’s “slower than many comparable targets around the world and comes years later than the Canadian Radio-televion and Telecommunications Commission’s stated goal for the same level of Internet connectivity.”

Both Geist and Christopher pointed out that Industry Canada just raised $5.27 billion from the 700 Mhz spectrum auction, yet there was no mention of investing that money into digital initiatives.

(With files from Brian Jackson and Candice So.)

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