How Canada can return to its ICT glory years

Canadian businesses have fallen behind their global counterparts when it comes to ICT investment and will have to work closely with government on a national strategy that will re-establish the country as a digital economic power. The argument was laid out by several technology experts Monday at an Industry Canada-hosted event in Ottawa.

Currently about 600,000 people are directly involved in the production, sales and marketing of Canada’s multi-billion dollar ICT industry, about 20 per cent more than the auto industry at its peak, Research In Motion Ltd.’s president and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis told conference attendees.

Those numbers also leave out the hundreds of thousands of people who produce, maintain, sell and install technology in other industry sectors, he added. “Still, looking at the Canadian ICT industry, it is largely taken for granted.”

Despite the numbers, Lazaridis said a national strategy that encourages businesses to use ICT to compete globally is long overdue and necessary if Canada is to emerge strongly from the ongoing global economic recession.

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Perrin Beatty, president and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, echoed Lazaridis’ sentiments, calling on the government to set up a national strategy — developed in conjunction with the private sector and educational institutions — that commits to new infrastructure investments and creates common sense policies to promote ICT use.

“The United States, Australia, Denmark and South Korea are a few of the nations that have recently invested heavily in these technologies, realizing the potential return for businesses and citizens,” he said, adding that U.S. President Obama has made it abundantly clear that new ICT infrastructure will help strengthen the American economy.

“Without proper investment and dedication to ICT, innovation and protecting intellectual property rights, Canada’s productivity will be limited and other nations will eclipse us as a destination of choice for business investment.”

He said that while the recent three-year, $225-million commitment to broadband infrastructure is a good first step, it is far from being enough to getting Canada back on-track.

Jacob Glick, who heads Google Inc.’s Canadian Policy Counsel, agreed, saying that developing high-speed networks to facilitate emerging mobile technologies will play a significant role in Canada’s future as an ICT powerhouse. All it will take, he added, is some common sense from government leaders.

On the broadband side, the government could immediately require every public infrastructure project to also include the installation of fibre optic cable, Glick said. “About 90 per cent of the cost of laying fibre is the construction costs, so if the ground is already ripped up, why don’t you put the fibre optic cable down?”

“Or the private sector could work with the public sector in these projects to lay the fibre,” he added.

In terms of wireless technology, with analogue television channels heading toward extinction, the radio spectrum taken up by these channels will soon be free. “We could use these TV white spaces and deploy them for mobile broadband uses,” he said. “The U.S. is already moving down this road and they’ll soon have handsets enabled by this stuff.”

Glick added that while broadband is important, if it is used to “carry private networks and walled gardens” it will not help foster innovation. Government policy should also be engaged in creating an open Internet, he said.

“When government money is used to develop broadband networks, it should be required that they are open,” Glick said. “Public money should not be used for walled gardens.”

Outlining the Canadian Chamber’s keys to ICT prosperity, Beatty proposed that the federal government should accelerate investments in next-generation networks by amending tax policies to stimulate investments on a geographically and technologically neutral basis and removing regulatory roadblocks to capital investments.

He added that the federal government should also put a greater emphasis on promoting technology as a career to Canada’s youth and invest more money into programs that encourage e-business adoption from both SMEs and foreign businesses looking to move into the country.

“For SMEs, you have to show them other concrete examples of their peers using technologies that make them successful,” Beatty said, adding that peer-assisted learning could be an effective way to make ICT investments a higher priority among local businesses.

Wayne Gudbranson, president and CEO of Ottawa-based consultancy Branham Group Inc., said that in addition to focusing on technological innovation, the need for Canada’s ICT industry to strengthen sales and marketing tactics will also be important to competing on the world stage.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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