Policy is a mix of new and previously announced initiatives

The federal government has finally released its long-promised national digital economy strategy, one that promises that Canada “will rank among world leaders in adopting digital technologies.”

Industry Minister James Moore unveiled the policy this morning at Waterloo-based OpenText Corp. this morning.

The plan, dubbed Digital Canada 150 — because it ties in with the country’s 150th birthday in 2017 —  includes 39 new initiatives towards a more connected Canada, according to Industry Canada. With several aspects of parliamentary law-making around technology regulation and support, the plan is built on five pillars. Connecting Canadians, protecting Canadians, economic opportunities, digital government, and Canadian content.

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The plan follows an online consultation that took place over three months in 2010.

Among the highlights, it aims to give  98 per cent of Canadians the ability to access service providers offering high-speed Internet connections of at least 5 megabits per second, give consumers confidence online transactions are secure and privacy is protected, and hold wireless telecommunications companies to as yet unspecified capped roaming rates to help keep bills in check and improve competition.

It also includes some undefined promises such as “Canada’s wireless policies will connect Canadians with competitive prices, more choice in services and world-leading technologies in all regions of the country,” and “the government will optimize the use of publicly owned wireless airwaves to provide Canadians with the access they need on the devices they choose.”

Telecommunications and rural broadband

Funding to the tune of $305 million will expand the 5 Mbps download Internet connections to 280,000 rural households. Those households will be gaining access to high-speed Internet for the first time, Moore says.

Meanwhile most urban areas of the country have access to carriers that offer at least triple that speed.

The government is capping roaming fees in order to boost competition, Moore says. This will prevent wireless providers from charging other companies more than they charge their own customers for mobile voice, data and text services while outside of Canada’s borders.

“We’re not looking forward to greater consolidation and concentration of Canada’s wireless services,” he said. “We have an obligation and a responsibility as a government to inspire more competition.”

The strategy includes a mixture of new and previously announced government policies. For example, Industry Canada will go ahead with the previously promised auction of spectrum in the 2500 megahertz band in April 2015 for cellphone companies. This is to ensure carriers have enough spectrum to meet expected demand. Moore also repeated Ottawa will implement a “use it or lose it” policy for all companies that hold wireless spectrum licences to forbid them from hoarding frequencies.

New privacy legislation coming

Moore says he will introduce a bill called the Digital Privacy Act, next week, updating the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA). “This will give the (federal) Privacy Commissioner new powers to protect Canadians as they venture online.”

It will give the commissioner tools to use to enforce privacy covered by the federal statute, including requiring organizations to notify the Privacy Commissioner about data breaches, Moore said. He used the example of his 75-year-old father doing some online shopping with his iPhone to demonstrate how fraud could discourage online shopping.

“It only takes one horrible experience to learn about his information to be stolen or credit card information to be stolen to scare him away from that for good,” he says.

Also new will be anti-money laundering and anti-terrorist financing regulations for virtual currencies. An enhancement to the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada.

Digital economy investments and policy

The Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) will earmark $200 million to support technology adoptions for SMBs under the digital strategy. It will also have an additional $300 million available for venture capital to invest in companies in the information and communications technology sector. In addition, the Canada Accelerator and Incubator Program will increase to $100 million to help digital entrepreneurs.

Moore also touched upon recent international negotiations around updating intellectual property laws in the digital age.

“In the world of patent trolls and IP thieves and everything else, we have to make sure that when someone patents an idea, it’s not just applicable in Kitchener/Waterloo or in Ontario, or in Canada, but across the world,” Moore said. “This is a global digital economy, therefore our laws have to be updated.”

Modernizing the federal government

To build upon the government’s open data strategy, it will create an Open Data Institute, an inititative announced in February’s federal budget. The government will begin by testing prototypes developed by private sector players to provide new data products and services to the marketplace. Many of those first projects may be based upon the Canadian Open Data Experience appathon that saw 900 developers creating apps based on open data from the government.

“We’re going to be modernizing the government of Canada internally, to finally catch up to the 21st centrally,” Moore said. “Why are we building our digital Canada government infrastructure for a $300 laptop instead of for the $1,000 smartphone?”

As part of that effort, the government’s 60 different email systems, 300 data centres, and 3,000 electronic networks will be merged and streamlined.

Canadian content in a digital world

A partnership with Historica Canada will see the creation of new new “Heritage Minutes” short films on key events in Canadian history every year until 2017. Historica’s digital archive The Memory Project will also be expanded, documenting the involvement of Canada in several wars during the 20th century.

“It’s a sad stat but it’s an important one, in only four of Canada’s 13 provinces and territories is it required to take a Canadian history class to graduate from high school,” Moore said. “We need to make sure all of our institutions are sharing Canadian history so we can build and grow and share from each other.”

A spokesman for the Public Interest  Advocacy Centre (PIAC) said the group is looking forward to seeing details on the government’s plans for telecom access, affordability and privacy. “A lot of the commitments in the statement of intent are positive,” said Geoffrey White, the centre’s counsel,  “but the devil is in the details.”

For example, the policy doesn’t explicitly say that the target date for getting 98 per cent of Canadians access to 5 Mbps Internet is 2017. (The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission — the CRTC — set a target date of the end of 2015 for giving most Canadians access to that speed. Later that target was changed to the end of this year.)

He also noted that the government’s policy still means two per cent of Canadians won’t have access to broadband.

As for promises to deal with privacy, PIAC worries that will mainly focus on e-commerce and not on issues of organizations handling location tracking data and information for behavioral marketing.

In an article for the Toronto Star, University of Ottawa Internet law professor Michael Geist wrote the policy puts to rest allegations the Harper government doesn’t care about digital issues. On the other hand, he complained the policy “lacks a big picture goal or target that might have made the whole greater than the sum of its parts.”

It could have included a national digital library to revolutionize access in schools and communities, he wrote, addressed  fears of widespread surveillance of individuals, ordered the structural separation of Internet providers or a plan to join forces with the private sector to bring affordable access and computing equipment into every home in Canada.

Bill Hutichson, 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.”

He also is disappointed Ottawa’s policy doesn’t include a fund for helping municipalities become intelligent cities, as the government in Britain has done.

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