Canadian broadband: the time for complaining is over

It’s hard to imagine life without the Internet. But for millions of people, it’s a reality.

Tiago Gualberto Morais/Flickr

I had to take a deep breath before writing this post, mostly to get all the four-letter words and other obscenities out of my system. There are few things that make me as angry as Canada’s abject failure on broadband issues, a situation that was highlighted again on Wednesday by our neighbours to the south and their creation of a plan to get high-speed Internet to the poorest Americans.

If you missed the news, the Federal Communications Commission introduced a plan that will give households in the National Student Lunch Program access to broadband for $9.99 a month. Moreover, the FCC’s Connect 2 Compete program will also get these families access to inexpensive computers ranging from $150 to $250, plus training on how to use them and the Internet. This is far from just a government initiative, though—the broadband part is coming through a partnership with cable companies such as Comcast, with the likes of Microsoft and Best Buy providing the other stuff.

It’s probably hard for anyone reading this (on the web) to imagine what life would be like without the Internet, but for those millions of Americans, it’s reality. That’s why, for the most part, the FCC’s plan is being lauded. Lefty types like it for obvious reasons while the righties like it too because it targets those 5.5 million homes that don’t—and most likely can’t—subscribe to broadband anyway. The plan doesn’t take money out of Internet providers’ pockets and it stands to add millions of people to what was once considered the economy of the future, but what is in reality the economy of the now.

Here in Canada, we can only look on in envy—and anger, because our situation is similar. Canada has an estimated 500,000 households that can’t afford broadband, which is not necessarily a case of whether telecom companies are charging too much for the service, but rather a simple fact of poverty. The Canadian government’s record in all things broadband, meanwhile, is dismal, particularly in comparison with our G8 partners. Along with the U.S., every other country that counts has taken definitive steps to get all of its citizens connected:

Japan: Not surprisingly, Japan is the world’s most advanced Internet nation, with the cheapest and fastest broadband available (only South Korea comes close). It all started with the e-Japan plan, a strategy unveiled way back in 2001… you know, when Canada was still a world broadband leader. Looking at that link, which goes to the government’s e-Japan website, is a lesson in irony given how absolutely ancient it looks by today’s standards.

France: The French government launched its France Numerique plan back in 2008 with an aim to making the country a leader in the digital space by 2012. The comprehensive plan tackled everything from getting universal access to broadband by 2012 to better video game production. While France is getting close to assessing how well it has done, Canada hasn’t even gotten in on the ground floor.

Germany: The Germans have aimed high with their broadband plan, announced in 2009. The first phase looks to get 75 per cent of the country speeds of 50 megabits by 2014 while the next phase aims for 100 megabits to 50 per cent and 50 megabits to another 30 per cent by 2020. It’s an ambitious goal, but it’s always good to shoot high because if you fall short, you’re usually still miles ahead of where you started.

Italy: The Italian government also detailed its broadband strategy in 2009, with a plan to get universal connections speeds of 2 megabits by 2012 and 20 megabits by 2020. Work continues apace, with the government leading and organizing industry to implement the plan.

United Kingdom: The UK’s plan of getting every home a connection of at least 2 megabits per second by 2015 isn’t exactly ambitious, but it’s still better than what Canada has, which is diddly squat.

Russia: The good news is the Canadian government is not alone in the G8 in being asleep at the broadband wheel. The bad news is, it’s joined by Russia, which has apparently done about as much—the government has talked a bunch about broadband, but otherwise initiated nothing. Simply put, there’s really no level on which Canada wants to be compared to Russia.

Depressing, isn’t it? And that’s just the G8; never mind what’s going on in other European and Asian countries, plus Australia and New Zealand, where governments are actively spending billions of dollars in overseeing the construction of next-generation networks that will, with any luck, be accessible by all of their citizens. A quick read of this Wikipedia page or the OECD’s overview is enough to bring any Canadian who cares about the future of their country to tears.

In the end, we can only complain about this for so long. Blaming the government or telecom companies for holding back or doing nothing about Canada’s digital development clearly isn’t getting us anywhere—it’s obvious both have failed the country—which is why people from across the spectrum are starting to speak up and/or taking action. Greg O’Brien, editor of telecom and broadcast news site Cartt.ca, has an excellent overview of the issue.

As he points out, solving this problem starts with getting computers to those who need them most. Renewed Computer Technology is a non-profit charity that specializes in taking used corporate machines, wiping them clean and then redistributing them to schools, libraries and others who need them. If you or your company has computers that need to be disposed, check with this organization to see if they can be put to use.

Similarly, telecom consultant Mark Goldberg is trying to organize a “One Million Computers” movement that seeks to address the same issues. While Mark and I disagree on many things, this isn’t one of them. All Canadians should have a computer and have Internet access, period. If you think you might be able to help or have any ideas, feel to contact him or me through our respective websites.

The broadband side of things is trickier to solve. The answer, when industry and government is failing the people, may lie in the people bringing things closer to home, as a recent fight in Longmont, Col. illustrates. The town of 80,000 was tired of getting substandard service from ISPs, so it held a referendum and—despite hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying by Comcast and other opponents—succeeded in getting the right to build its own fibre network. How it goes from here remains to be seen, but it’s an inspirational win for fans of democracy (and who isn’t one?).

If this issue does bother you, get on the phone to your MP, MPP or local councillor and urge others to do the same. Let them know that Canada can’t afford to be left behind.

Is this sort of local engagement the future of broadband development? Will Internet access boil down to people doing it for themselves? Unfortunately in Canada, it’s sure looking that way.




Browse

Canadian broadband: the time for complaining is over

  1. I believe Brian Tobin proposed this years ago, but it never got off the ground.

    For the same reason we can’t have maglev trains, or open up our universities or anything else that would be useful.

    We might have to spend a nickel, and Cons are crumb-chasers…unless it has to do with oil of course.

    • The only thing I disagree about with you here Emily is it isn’t a particulary Con problem (and you know I’m not a cheerleader for them) it’s that Canadians as a whole are cheapskates. We, as a nation, no matter who’s in government, are a bunch of cheap bastards. This manifests itself in many ways, including one of my favourite Douglas Copeland quotes, wherein he describes Canadian architecture as being of the “That’ll Do” School. There are exceptions to this rule, but the rule holds.

      • I’ll agree with that.  It’s just the Cons have recently made a sacrament of it electorally, while actually spending money on stupid things. They’re not very good businessmen.

  2. I agree that complete coverage across Canada with broadband would be awesome.  But comparing Canada to countries the size of Japan and the European countries is not fair.  The cost of setting up networks in tiny countries is nothing compared to spreading towers and fiber optic cable all over this vast landscape.  I live in a small rural community in Northeast BC and I’m sure the cost of broadband here does not pay for the equipment and time it took to install hi-speed here.  I think your rant is unjustified.

    • New invention…satellites

      • Satellites don’t work, but wireless does, and we just happen to have a home grown telecommunication company with the very latest patents on high-speed wireless communication.

        • Satellites work, but I’m happy you have an alterrnative.

          • To achieve the goal of providing broadband to every household in Canada, they don’t work. Full duplex satellite communication is unstable, unreliable, unscalable, and expensive. I’m not saying this just to disagree with you. We worked on various solutions to provide highspeed internet for a remote construction project and satellite failed miserably. Think of how little it takes to interupt  one way satellite communication, then imagine how much power a base on the ground would require to punch the signal all the way to space. 

            The company I’m talking about is RIM with the LTE technology it bought from the defunct  Nortel. There lies the key to covering our entire country with highspeed internet.

          • Companies use satellites for remote control and at remote stations, so I’m not sure why you had trouble with it.

            It is expensive, but if it was being done Canada-wide the cost would come down.

            However if you prefer RIM, I’m not about to knock them.

          • Emily, remote control facilities require only a few kilo bits of bandwidth to send commands and receive responses, intermittently  Broadband, technically, begins at 512 kilobits and by modern standards is closer to 5 megabits. Some satellite internet providers offer up to 10 megabits but on average offer only 1 megabit, or 1024 kilobits. The reason for that is that a single satellite has a maximum bandwidth of 1024 megabits.

            The minimum standard set in the article above is 2 Megabits per household. By that standard you would need 1000 satellites, more if you increase the minimum. Not even considering the cost to build and send these satellite into space, managing that many geostationary satellites, with that many overlapping signals, is just impossible.

          • @google-7764e89375197a56fc2c368410de3204:disqus 

            We already have the Anik F2 and F3….but like I said, go with 3G if you want.

          • LTE is a technology separate from 3G and 4G allowing speeds of up to 100 megabits.

            We have 3 Aniks in operation, great, 997 to go. We would need to send 1 satellite into space every 5.5 days for 15 years, and then keep sending more at that rate after that to replace the ones that are defunct. Then, there’s the fact that 3 communication satellite covering the same area is already a nightmare. 1000 covering the same space and same communication bands is a technological impossibility.

          • @google-7764e89375197a56fc2c368410de3204:disqus 

            Oh do be serious. LOL

      • Its flippant suggestions like this that give you a lack of credibility in everything else you say.  When someone states something completely absurd about a topic you know a lot about, you come to assume that their other suggestions must be absurd too.

        • LOL yeah…when people make absurd remarks, I tend not to take them seriously.

          That’s a crime now is it?

        • Awesome business model, bro. Tell it again.

          • I suppose its an awesome business model if the government pays for the ($100Ms) satellites and donates the ($Bs) spectrum.  Ask Iridium how well it turned out as a for-profit business. They were only doing phone calls, which are ~20 – 80 Kbps.

          • @OriginalEmily1:disqus Yes, that Iridium.  It is used as a case study for missing the market in business schools.  It cost Motorola $7B to build their satellite network, which they sold for $35M.
            As indie_light mentioned, LTE or WiMax with ground-based transmitters is within the realm of reasonable.Example business case: http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=2748

          • @fraserharris:disqus 

            Well then business schools are behind the times, as Iridium is up and running just fine.

            As I told indie light, satellites are the best way to go, but if he preferred RIM he was welcome to his preference

          • They are spending another $3B to upgrade their 66 satellites.  Each satellite can currently do 16 x 1.6 kbps.  Assuming the same frequency reuse factor for the new ones that arrive in 2015.  They will be able to support 16 x 1.5 Mbps and 16 x 8 Mbps. Each satellite can support 152 concurrent users at 1 Mbps.  For 1 satellite for every 1520 households, you would need 329 satellites, for $15B.  You could argue that we should be seeing economies of scale, but since most of the cost is in launching the satellite its unlikely you will achieve much in the way of savings.

            Assumptions: broadband is 1 Mbps, you can evenly divide the frequency cleanly, 10x subscribers to peak concurrent users.

          • Thats just talking about financial feasibility.  Lets talk technical feasibility.  Frequency reuse is possible because the satellite has can transmit to 16 separate “spots” (imagine a hexagonal pattern across the earth in a rough circle).  Unfortunately, our 500,000 families are not evenly distributed across Canada.  Most of them are in closer proximity to our cities and towns.  What this means is more frequency allocation.

            I’ve been thinking more about the 329 satellites.  Iridium’s goal is global coverage, which is why the need 66.  Your proposal could probably have much fewer to get the coverage, but they would have to be significantly larger to support the range of frequency allocation.  Note that frequency is not free.  Recent spectrum auctions for the 105 Mhz range netted the federal government over $2B.

          • @fraserharris:disqus 

            We have the net and cell phone service all over the planet already.

            They went up while you were figuring out a business plan. LOL

          • @fraserharris:disqus 

            I think we’ve been mad to exhaustively explain to Emily why Satellites wouldn’t work ans expect a different result. 

            I think it’s time Emily explains why Satellites are better than wireless,

    • That’s a cop-out and you know it. If people bought that argument around the turn of last century, we’d still have entire towns with no phone service or electricity.

      Municipally owned fiber optic networks with open-wholesale access can and do work. Let the cities, towns and counties handle the infrastructure, it opens up the market for real competition in service that can eliminate the need for things like Net Neutrality regulation/legislation, lower costs and provide universal access. It’s a win-win, the market benefits from much needed competition, costs drop with universal access as economies of scale grow and knock-on effects to other industries improve the economy as a whole.

      Heck, do the same thing with the Cell Grid. Bandwidth crisis? What Bandwidth Crisis.

    • You have roads to your small rural community? Electricity and telephones? 

      The roads were built by a government that recognized the value of a nation of interconnected communities. Same with electricity and telephone. That infrastructure was laid down not by savvy businessmen seeking to maximize profit, but by a government whose concern was societal value. Look into it and you’ll see that the internet itself was a government project motivated not by profit, but by an interest in forming a scientific community – for the sake of science. 

      And it would take a government to do that. 

      If you had been waiting on private, profit-motivated interests to hook your little community to the rest of the world you’d still be waiting, or paying a privately levied tax – a toll, a service charge, along with special fees to cover extra costs such as executive bonuses. 

      And if there was a law saying that the only interests permitted to do that hooking up are private, profit-motivated interests, you couldn’t even set up your own roadways.

      How is it that your sympathy is not with your community? How is it that the coddled private interests’ need to turn a profit means more to you than the needs of your community. “They can’t get rich on my little village, so we mustn’t bother them? If the doctor can’t get rich in your little village, why should a doctor be there?” I’m sure – or sincerely hope- that you’re not going there. 

      I’ll tell you this: I am willing to pay taxes to get your community high-speed internet, and good schools for all of your children and health care for even your most decrepit.

    • Good Point. You could fit all of the EU in Canada. And we only have a portion of the population. Half of these countries could be compared in size and population density to southern Ontario.

  3. Its all right for those guys, but we USED to be #1. Go Canada!!!

    Pretty soon we’ll have a prison system the envy of repressive governments everywhere. We merely have shifted priorities.

  4. “Will Internet access boil down to people doing it for themselves? Unfortunately in Canada, it’s sure looking that way.”

    Colleague Coyne would probably argue that this is not “unfortunate”; that we are able have these private organisations do what other countries need government support for, then the best way our government could help this movement is by removing all restrictions. An enterprise free of interventions and not buoyed down by constantly having to report to someone has much more potential for innovation. Such organisations, having the room to grow naturally, would achieve leadership in a niche, not where other countries have the advantage.

    Gosh did I just paraphrased Nash?

  5. “the time for complaining is over” so I’m going to complain in this article and tell you all to complain to your MP!

    Not that I’m actually criticizing the article at all, I just found that amusing.

  6. The problem in this country is the power wielded by the incumbent telecom/cable co’s. Rogers has been found in contravention of net neutrality rules several times this year, yet has not coughed up any fines as yet – apparently, claiming to have corrected the problem is enough. The complaints about ‘congestion’ and ‘bandwidth hogs’ were a smoke screen to create an excuse to increase pricing. Most have provided better packaging since that was shown to be a sham, but their unwillingness to play fair is legendary. And its all because Netflix wanted to come to play – god forbid consumers here have any real choices! The CRTC needs real teeth to deal with these characters; the ability to take monetary penalties for lapses in compliance, which could then be invested in ‘internet for all’ programs. Set some world-class goals, then make sure they achieve them. No whining. No complaining.

  7. I probably should have  taken a deeper breath before writing this comment, Peter you are a freakin idiot.
    “It’s probably hard for anyone reading this (on the web) to imagine what life would be like without the Internet, but for those millions of Americans, it’s reality.”

    For those self same millions of Americans getting proper health care is virtually impossible and putting a healthy meal on the table is a struggle.  Those are things I actually do have a hard time imagining.  

    • My guess is that Bill Gates and his foundation are underwriting a signifcant portion of the costs for this project as he is trying to improve the education provided to persons of color in the US.  It is one of his projects along with finding a cure for AIDS and erradicating TB, Malaria and Polio.  If we had a philanthropist with deep pockets in Canada that had such a focus, we might see it happen here.

  8. Just a question: is there any place I can donate computers with Ubuntu Linux installed and guarantee that this is the way person will get it without being wiped and proprietory Microsoft crap installed on them?

    • I respect your devotion, but why would they accept an uncertified operating system no one in the main stream can maintain?

      • I’m not asking for one of the mentioned organizations. I’m just wondering if there is some other place that works with donating computers with Linux pre-installed. 
        Btw, is there anyone supporting donated computers once they were given to people? With Windows and all the malware this is probably necessary, with Ubuntu Linux I expect it work more like an appliance using all resources of the machine for the benefit of the user and not for protecting against holes in Microsoft software.

        • Sounds like you have Ubuntu figured out. Maybe you should start your own charity. Maybe all the other Ubuntu programmers will benefit from this program.

  9. Guess there’s no room in your self-righteous rant for mentioning Canada’s very low population density relative to the countries whom you point to as examples of what we should be doing. It’s a hell of a lot more expensive getting broadband in many areas of this country compared with say, Japan, meaning cost recovery is extremely challenging.  In case you haven’t noticed….the economy situation is challenging enough these days without running billions more in debt.   

    • If Siberia can do it, we can.

      Except we’re big on making excuses.

      • Russia: The good news is the Canadian government is not alone in the G8 in being asleep at the broadband wheel
        ———————-

        According to this article, siberia’s not doing it.

          • Your compairing broadband access at hotels (which may be going with satellite) with lower cost broadband access for average people on a budget?  Give your head a shake.

          • It means the service is available, the hard work is done…the rest is simply money.

            And you’d happily spend money to put in a military base.

            Stop making excuses.

          • hard work is done? look clueless. sure, shoot up a satellite for half a billion dollars and if you’re a business, a hotel say, you can afford to pay for high speed in the north but making it affordable is something else.   

          • @4e331cd7629b53d269343e075e9aee92:disqus 

            The satellites are already up. Pay attention.

            Not hard to get it to everybody…it is however, vital.

          • obviously satellites are up, yeah you can use that for internet in the north but its not cheap. the story is about affordable broadband, not about what hotels are paying. Get yourself some smelling salts or something.

          • Perhaps you could read the article that begins this thread before you attempt to insult people. LOL

  10. I haven’t got a clue on this subject, but how is it possible and profitable to provide internet service in
    Afghanistan,  if it isn’t here?

    • Interesting question….

        • Well see, the wilds of Afghanistan and the war zone are different than quiet rural Canada because…um, er, cough, ahem…..

          And that’s why.

        • Look closer. That asterisk? That means if you split the bandwidth between multiple users. You’re still looking at a minimum cost of $126/mth with a $1300 install. And that’s for a peak burst speed of 300kb download which is split among your users. Having dealt with someone who had satellite internet I can tell you that that peak burst speed really does mean peak, really comes in bursts, and is nowhere near the average.

          Not to mention that Afghanistan’s population density is 124/square mile.

          Canada’s population density? 9/square mile.

  11. I would like to hear more about the computers and software that are being supplied by Microsoft and Bestbuy on the cheap in the US to students in the “National Student Lunch Program”.  Afterall, it doesn’t make much sense to offer cheap broadband if you don’t provide cheap computers and software.  I am wondering if part of the story isn’t missing here….the part having possibly to do with Bill Gates and his foundation.  He is dedicated to providing poor children of color in the US with a better education.  His foundation has already put computers in schools.  Could it be that he has spearheaded this project to provide computer service and computers at reduced cost to poor students.  It might be that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is underwriting a significant portion of the costs.

      • The information on Wikipedia was last updated in April 2010 so even if the foundation was involved in this project, it would not be mentioned.

        • I have no idea why you’re keen to link Gates to this….the article is about what we should be doing in Canada.

          • The reason they are able to do this in the US for the poorest students is that the private sector including prominant philanthropists are helping to underwrite the costs of the program according to the source document.  The reason I believe it is Bill Gates is two fold: the Microsoft connection and the fact that his foundation is the biggest philanthrophic foundation in the US devoted to educating poor, hispanic and African-American children.

          • Lots of philanthropists in the US…but that doesn’t help us one bit.

          • You are so right Emily.  If Canada cannot get the private sector on board and the assistance of philanthropists, chances are we will never get cheap widespread broadband and computers for poor people….that is my point.

          • @57fc79f8528c0aa6c4b4330d53700334:disqus 

            Actually we’re talking about broadband in rural areas….not poor people or people of colour or even philanthropists.

          • The article was written in response to the author learning that the US was “planning to get highspeed internet to the poorest Americans’….again highlighting  ”Canada’s failure with broadband issues”.  However, the truth of the matter is that the US’ “plan” is being underwritten by the private sector & philanthropists and WAS very likely SPEARHEADED and ORGANIZED BY BILL GATES.  So if we want that here in Canada, give Bill a call.

          • What is it with you and Bill Gates?  He is ‘likely’ behind this – you have no idea but suggest we go hat in hand to an American to help us?  Canada is so poor we need to apply for international aid now?

  12. Wow, Emily – you should just stop talking.  You are making yourself look bad.

    • Emily finds it “difficult” to stop talking.  Therefore, I need to stop.

      • No, not in the least.

        The topic is interesting, the ‘answers’ are bizarre.

    • LOL information scares you that much eh?

  13. As an aside, speaking as a Canadian living abroad Canada enjoys a rather decent price for internet service.
    I truly believe the problem here is the fact that the issue is capitalist driven. No one is willing to lose a fraction of a percent of current profits. Think about it, for simplicity…1000 customers at $10 a month is equivalent to 100 customers at $100 a month, now look at the needed personnel and maintenance differences.
    How can anyone expect a change in the system with that sort of math deciding the issues?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *