Digital strategy ideas call for ‘grand challenge’

Be bold and set a “grand challenge.” Deregulate. Set broadband speed targets. Don’t set broadband speed targets. Stay out of the private sector’s way. Set up a supercomputing infrastructure. Give carriers more wireless spectrum.

These are some of the submission from over 100 individuals, businesses and associations who responded to Ottawa’s call for help in designing a digital economy strategy.The deadline for suggestions was midnight tonight (July 13) and at press time more were being added to the government’s Web site.

If an online poll is to be believed, the most popular idea is creating a high performance computing infrastructure so public and private sector researchers are at the forefront of technological change in supercomputing.

The second most popular idea is to make all federal government data available free online.

The Harper government has promised to take these public submissions, plus the private opinions of industry and academics to fashion a strategy to lever digital technologies as a number of other nations have already done to accelerate competitiveness and prosperity. “There is broad agreement that the digital economy is a strong driver of innovation, which is essential to future growth across the entire Canadian economy,” Industry minister Tony Clement said in May when announcing the public consultation.However, it hasn’t set a timetable for when such a strategy will be released. 

Among the most recent entries, arguably the two opposite poles in the debate are represented by submissions from the New Brunswick Information Technology Council, a group representing IT companies in the province, and technology consulting company Deloitte Canada.

 “Canada should become a net-exporter of ICT (information and communication technology) products and services by 2014, and a world leader by 2018,” says the council.

To do that, Ottawa should set a goal of having carriers deliver at least 10 Mps upload speeds and 50 Mps download “to the remotest locations in the country”, the council said, and set a goal of multiplying that by a factor of 10 over the next decade.

“As a result, the nation would be seen as a thought-leader, and a leader in converting ideas into products and services that the rest of the world wants to buy,” the NBITC submission says. “We would become the global benchmark for how to make technology relevant and accessible to all dimensions of society.”

By contrast Deloitte Canada said it isn’t necessary for Ottawa “to spend tens of billions on digital economy megaprojects, nor do we need a national high-speed broadband stimulus project, nor is our current digital economy educational system failing to produce the talent we need.

In fact, it dismisses the idea of so-called “universal access” – that is, guaranteeing every resident and business a minimum broadband access speed.

Getting a device or service to the last 20 per cent of a population has some great public policy advantages (telemedicine or egovernment or distance learning), Deloitte says, but it doesn’t tend to have much of an economic effect. “Further, even the social benefits are unclear: in recent studies getting either PCs or broadband into lower income households has caused high school reading and math scores to fall, not increase.”

Instead, Deloitte recommends focusing on three things: Recharging domestic angel and venture capital funding through a combination of tax credits, pension changes and perhaps even government co-investment; simplifying tax rules for research and development; and “aggressively” releasing more wireless spectrum, which it says will spur innovation.

Some organizations made exhaustive submissions. BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada weighed in with 62 pages, while Telus’ main submission was 65 pages long plus three annexes.

Phone and cable companies are sensitive to the implications of a government digital strategy, fearing may impose obligations on them that will eat into profits and boost competitors.

So Bell writes that “Canada’s digital infrastructure, and particularly communications networks and services, is clearly not an obstacle to ICT adoption and growth. It is world-class today and a key component to creating a successful digital economy strategy.”

Eight months ago Bell (and Telus Corp.) launched an HSPA+ wireless data network, the report notes, and Bell is expanding its fibre to the node wired network in Ontario and Quebec.

Setting targets for the digital economy strategy “is ill-advised given the rapid pace of change in the underlying technologies and consumer behaviours,” says the telco’s submission.

But there does need to be an environment that encourages infrastructure investment, it says, and makes a number of suggestions for Ottawa to clear up its purchasing decisions, rules and regulations.

One is a demand the federal cabinet watch for the upcoming decision of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission decision on giving competitors wholesale access to its fastest products. If the federal telecom regulator doesn’t back down on its previous decision granting wholesale access, the cabinet should overturn the ruling, Bell says. The commission just finished a hearing on the issue.

On the other hand a consortium of groups that includes Telus, Cisco Systems Canada, IBM Canada and others said the way to kick-start the nation towards a digital economy is to set up a “grand challenge” of building so-called “smart communities” over the next 10 years.

Smart communities would leverage digital technologies and cloud computing to make the best use of shared facilities such as water, energy, sewage disposal, transportation and security, their report said.

Cisco has been pushing a “smart grid” strategy for electric utilities and is a prime supplier to Toronto’s fledgling “i-Waterfront” residential and commercial project.

Among the other submissions, the Women in Technology branch of the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance warned that women are under-represented in ICT and other advanced technology sectors, which in part has created a skills shortage. “If the gender balance is not corrected, Canada’s economic growth will be weakened,” the submission says, and it calls for a number of initiatives to encourage women to make careers in ICT.