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There’s still no national digital strategy, but the federal government is promising to put another $305 million over five years to extend and enhance broadband internet service for Canadians in rural and Northern communities.

Announced in Tuesday’s budget speech by finance minister James Flaherty, the goal is to give the ability of 280,000 households access to download speeds of at least 5 Mbps, a five-year target set out in 2011 by the Canadian Radio Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

The money comes after Ottawa gave $225 million over three years starting in 2010 to upgrade service to dozens of communities that had access to minimal speeds over phone lines or no Internet access at all.

“For most Canadians, access to affordable and reliable broadband networks is an important part of everyday life,” the speech said in part. With the extra funding almost every Canadian household will have access to a service with at last 5 Mbps, the government says.

Details about how communities and service providers qualify for the new money have yet to be released.

Elsewhere the budget document repeated previous promises from the Harper government to amend the Telecommunications and Radiocommunications Acts to cap wholesale domestic wireless roaming rates to prevent large carriers from charging smaller operators who use their networks more than they charge their own customers, and to give the CRTC and Industry Canada power to impose fines of companies that violate wireless rules.

The CRTC will also be given authority to impose conditions on resellers of telecom services relating to “social requirements” so all consumers benefit no matter what provider they choose.

Although the new rural broadband program is short on details telecom analyst Mark Goldberg said he sees encouraging signs in the budget statement that it may be a signal that a national digital strategy will soon be released.

In a blog he detailed why, noting the budget talks about certain things that could be reflected in thing outlined in an Industry Canada discussion paper three years ago on creating a digital strategy. The budget speech mentions fostering job creation – which could use digital technologies — the promise of creating a $3 million Open Data Institute to help aggregate large government datasets, the renewal of the Computers For Schools program (which refreshes PCs) with $36 million.

“The framework for a national digital strategy is taking shape,” he wrote.

As for the new rural broadband program, “one of the challenges for the government will be to find a way to run a broadband expansion program that is both cost effective and competitively neutral to ensure the funds are used in a way consumers in the affected areas will have choice of providers. I tend to prefer targeting broadband programs to encourage (Internet) adoption rather than programs based on geography without regard to whether the people need the subsidy.”

University of Ottawa Internet law professor Michael Geist also saw the budget speech as a “revival” of a digital strategy. In a blog he complained that the new rural broadband plan means the most distant Canadians won’t have access to 5 Mbps service until 2019. The CRTC target for that is 2015. But he did say that pieces in the budget combined with other things the government has said and is doing point the way to a digital strategy of sorts.

Bill Sandiford, president of the Canadian Network Operators Consortium (CNOC), which represents many independent Internet service providers said in a statement that providing access for more than 280,000 Canadians will create jobs and allow more Canadians in rural and remote parts of Canada to reap the financial and social rewards of enhanced internet access.  “Three hundred and five million dollars will go a long way to ensuring Canadians, regardless of where they live, can enjoy increased communications capability and all the benefits that that entails” he said.

The Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), which represents the ITC industry, noted the budget also plans to spend $1.5 billion  over five years to create a Canada First Research Excellence Fund, which the IT industry may be able tap, and will add $40 million over for years to the Canadian Accelerator and Incubator Program to help entrepreneurs create new companies.

“The focus on jobs, and particularly the Jobs Report, are excellent indicators that the government understands the specific needs of sectors such as ICT that are facing chronic skills shortages,” ITAC CEO Karna Gupta said in a statement. “Governments, educations institutions, and employers all have a role to play in building 21st-century, high-value jobs. This action plan charts these roles very well.”

The Jobs Report reflects many of the points that ITAC has been making regarding the importance of the international labour market to Canada’s economy, the ITAC statement said, and the way that technology and innovation are raising skill requirements for all Canadians. The budge allocates $11 million over two years to better identify vulnerable temporary workers and improve processing times for certain applications.

In a statement satellite provider Telesat Canada said it supports the new rural broadband program, noting it has the infrastructure to help provide access.  Telesat sells capacity to local operators who resell telecom service to customers.

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