Telecom executives call for more government funding

TORONTO — Canadians living in rural and isolated areas won’t get broadband Internet access without satellite service and government funding, according to speakers at the Canadian Telecom Summit.

“It is a public policy decision as to whether we have broadband access or not,” said Robert Watson, chief executive officer of Regina-based Saskatchewan Telecommunications Holding Corp. (SaskTel), the province-owned incumbent telecommunication carrier in Saskatchewan. Comparing broadband access to roads, he said some people consider it their “God-given right” to have roads to their homes and businesses, and the same goes for broadband Internet access.

“If we make a public policy decision to fund broadband to everybody, it means the urban population will subsidize the rural population,” Watson said. “It’s that simple. It’s your tax dollars that will do that.”

Watson made his remarks to an audience of about 100 at a panel discussion on broadband access at The Telecom Summit, co-produced by Mark H. Goldberg Associates Inc. and NBI/Michael Sone Associates Inc. and held at the Toronto Congress Centre.

But not everyone attending the panel agreed with taxpayer-funded broadband.

Eamon Hoey, senior partner at Toronto-based Hoey Associates Management Consultants Inc., was among the audience members. During the question period, Hoey said the industry should be trying to get the government “out of the way.”

“We need a much better policy than to say we need to be rescued by government,” Hoey argued.

But Watson maintained private companies cannot be relied upon to fund Internet access to remote areas, and other panelists agreed.

“If private enterprise was (the solution) it would already have been done by now,” said Mike Dixon, vice-president for wireless networks at Motorola Canada Ltd.

Dixon said the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has rated Canada 29th out of 30 in “wireless penetration” and in rural areas, wireless and satellite technologies are the only way to provide broadband access.

Furthermore, satellite is the most cost-effective way to bring Internet service to communities with fewer than six households per square kilometre, said John Maduri, chief executive officer of Woodstock, N.B.-based Barrett Xplore Inc., which provides service using Telesat’s Anik satellites.

Maduri said Canada has more than a million households in areas with fewer than six households per square kilometre. Although cellular service is the best way to provide broadband access to areas with between seven and 25 households per square kilometre, satellite is a “critical piece of the puzzle” to get 100 per cent broadband penetration in Canada, Maduri added.

“Deep rural is uneconomical in any case except (with) satellite,” Watson said, adding SaskTel received no responses to a request for proposals issued for dark fibre to rural areas.

SaskTel currently provides access at 1.5 Mbps or better to 86 per cent of the population of Saskatchewan, and the goal is to get broadband to everyone in the province, he said, using a combination of wireless, wireline and satellite. SaskTel’s CommunityNet program now provides broadband access to 300 localities, meaning any place with a school and library has broadband access.

“We believe the government needs to contribute more to the broadband initiative,” Watson said.

The Telecom Summit, which runs until Wednesday, featured speakers from major wireless equipment manufacturers and carriers.

Ken Campbell is chief executive officer of Globalive Wireless, which obtained spectrum licences in March. He said the industry is approaching “perfect storm” in wireless because handset prices have “fallen incredibly” and applications from the Apple iTunes App Store and Research in Motion Inc. have made broadband wireless more useful.

“The applications have matured so much from those early days when we were selling simple ring tones,” he said at a panel discussion, titled Mobile Evolution.

But users are concerned about security, according to another panelist, Peter Greenwood, a Vancouver-based partner with KPMG’s information, communications and entertainment practice.

In a survey of more than 4,000 users in 19 countries, KPMG asked respondents how comfortable they are with using their mobile phones for financial transactions. Only 14 per cent said they were “very comfortable,” 39 per cent said they were “somewhat comfortable” while 47 per cent said they were “not comfortable at all,” Greenwood said.

When asked about their specific concerns, 69 per cent of respondents said their top concern was the potential for third parties to intercept their credit card information, Greenwood said.

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