OECD again assailed for Canadian telecom ranking

For some time the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has faced fire from Canadian telecommunications industry experts on the way it creates comparative broadband statistics for its member industrialized nations.

Complaints range from the methodologies it uses (“North Americans don’t use broadband that way”) to the time lag in reports (“They missed the new carrier network that just got built”).

Now there’s another: For its latest figures Canada ranked almost last among 31 countries offering mobile wireless services because apparently no one here could give the agency the stats the way it wants.

“It’s another example of why I do not place a high degree of reliability of criticisms of Canada based on OECD numbers,” said Mark Goldberg a Thornhill, Ont.-based telecommunications consultant who has worked for a number of Canadian carriers.

The agencies reports have “glaring deficiencies.”
Sidebar: A U.S. take on the OECD

The OECD has been measuring broadband penetration among its members for years because access to high speed Internet is considered a necessity for an advanced economy.

For its June, 2010 broadband statistics, issued Monday, the Paris-based agency issued for the first time what it calls a wireless broadband penetration indicator: The number of wireless broadband subscriptions per 100 people, include those using satellite, fixed and mobile wireless.
It chose to subdivide mobile subscribers into two groups: Those with “standard” plans (that is, data is included in their voice plan) and those with “dedicated” data subscriptions. It insisted on both to make a calculation.

For 29 countries the OCED was able to get either firm figures or estimates from government departments, so those countries can officially be compared.

However, Canada and two other countries couldn’t supply data for some categories. In a note the agency said figures for the number of people in Canada with standard or dedicated wireless plans weren’t available by its deadline. As a result, the millions of Canadians who have cellular and mobile plans aren’t counted.

In the end Canada was ranked 28th,  because only the number of fixed wireless subscribers were counted.

According to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s annual Communications report, issued in July — after the OCED’s June deadline — last year there were 23 million wireless subscribers in Canada.

That report, which goes to parliament, doesn’t break down subscribers by the type of plan. However, the OECD was able to get overall mobile subscription numbers by its deadline for a number of countries and still count them.

Also docked were Austria, because the OECD couldn’t find the number of subscribers with dedicated mobile plans, and the Czech Republic, which couldn’t supply the number of mobile satellite or standard mobile subscribers.

Asked for an explanation, an OECD telecommunications analyst, Agustin Diaz-Pines, said in an e-mail that part of the reason for the lack of Canadian figures is that this is a new indicator whose methodology was only settled in March. As a result some governments couldn’t report complete data. It was not a matter of the Canadian government being unwilling to publish the necessary data, he wrote. “Governments and the industry need some time to get used to the new methodology, in order to report comparable data,” he wrote.

“This just shows that their focus on the ‘bigger picture’ may get in the way of useful material for public policy makers to use,” Iain Grant, managing director of the SeaBoard Group, a Montreal-based telecommunications consultancy, said in an e-mail.

Goldberg believes Ottawa is to blame. The OECD are just “accountants” who rely on figures sent by bureaucrats, he said. “Who is in the government that doesn’t care or is trying to make Canada’s performance worse than it really is?” he asked.

“Why is it we have various [cabinet] ministers citing woeful [telecom] performance as cited by the OECD, and yet we don’t have anyone paying serious enough attention that Canada’s data that goes to the OECD meets quality standards?”

To some degree the OECD will always be out of date, particularly on wireless where technology and the number of carriers change almost monthly.

Had the agency managed to get data for June, for example, it wouldn’t have included new subscribers signed up by Toronto-based startups Mobilicity and Public Mobile. They started signing up customers in mid-May.

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