Liberal platform highlights digital technologies

A Liberal government won’t waste time setting the rules for upcoming wireless spectrum auctions that carriers are eagerly waiting for, says the party’s Industry critic.

“If we come to power on the third of May we will make it clear to them as quickly as possible so they’ll be able to make their decision well head of time” on participating in the auction, Marc Garneau (pictured) said in an interview Tuesday.

However, Garneau refused to say now what the party’s position is on matters such as whether there will be a set aside for smaller carriers or whether foreign-controlled companies will be allowed to bid on spectrum.

As an opposition party, the Liberals haven’t had access to information held by government departments, he explained, so the public will have to wait.

Garneau is running for re-election in the Montreal riding of Westmount-Ville Marie.
Blogging Idol 2011 is back! Blog your thoughts for the chance to win a prizeHe made the comments as he detailed some of the reasoning behind the party’s digital strategy, which was released over the weekend as part of its platform. It says digital-related technologies created by the information and communications industries are one of three Champion Sectors a Liberal government will focus on.

The telecommunications industry has been lobbying for rules for the auctions for the highly prized 700 MHz and 2.5 GHz bands — and whether there will be one or separate auctions — for some time. The Harper government has suggested an auction won’t be held before 2012. Garneau said setting the rules will be a Liberal government priority.

The Harper government delayed announcing its auction rules until it set its policy on liberalizing foreign telecommunications investment. In a separate interview, Industry Minister Tony Clement, who is running for re-election, said before the election was called the government’s plan was to announce that policy later this year. Garneau, however, seems to suggest that the Liberals aren’t tying the auction rules to foreign investment.

The Liberals want to change foreign investment in the telecom sector, Garneau said, but only after being assured that it won’t diminish Canadian content carried by broadcasters. This is complicated because a number of major Internet carriers are telephone or cable companies who also own TV channels or stations such as Shaw Communications Inc. (which recently bought the CanWest Global network), BCE Inc., (which owns Bell Canada and the CTV network), and Rogers Communications Inc. (which owns TV stations in Ontario.) Rogers and Bell are also wireless companies, while Shaw is starting to build its wireless network.

While the Harper government has held parliamentary hearings on foreign telecom investment, Garneau said a Liberal government will want to hold hearings of its own on the limited issue of whether increased foreign control will affect Canadian content providers.

Some carriers say that through changes in the Telecommunications and Broadcasting Acts, companies can restructure themselves to separate the pure wired or wireless carriage divisions, which could have more foreign investment, from the broadcasting side, which has Canadian content rules.

“We want to explore that because we want to go towards greater competition,” Garneau said. “But we want to make sure we have the safeguards to protect the content. We want to explore it but we also want the telcos to show us how we can do it.”

Garneau also said the Liberals see household access to broadband as a “basic right” for all residents as part of their national digital strategy.

Called Digital Canada, it plan includes a vow for every household to be able to access the Internet wired or wirelessly at a speed of 1.5 megabits per second within three years. The Liberals promise to spend $500 million subsidizing infrastructure construction to hit that target, to be paid for from the proceeds of the spectrum auction. According to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), some 800,000 people in outlying areas didn’t have access to broadband in 2009.

Garneau acknowledged that 1.5 Mpbs “is a fairly modest amount, but it’s still a beginning and we hope in the course of the next nine years to increase that to a much higher rate.” He couldn’t say how much higher.

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission is preparing a plan to bring a minimum 4 Mbps service to every American household within a decade.

The Liberals also promise to promote digital skills training, particularly for older Canadians and lower income families. The platform doesn’t say how much that will cost.

There will be a tax credit for investors who put money in startups, which are currently starved for venture capital, and a tax incentive for startups to lure investors.

There are also promises to leverage the Internet for open federal government.

Former Industry Minister Tony Clement called the platform a “grand larceny” of the Harper policies.

“I’d like to see this, then I’ll tell you whether it’s a copy,” retorted Garneau.