Rob Ford and the politics of high cellphone bills

30 May
Toronto mayor Rob Ford: notice he's not using a cellphone?

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford: notice he’s not using a cellphone?

You may have heard that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has been in the news recently. Something about some crack-smoking allegations, apparently.

For residents of this fair city, and perhaps even for the rest of Canada, it’s an unprecedented political drama that’s becoming more sordid by the day. Drug dealers, murders, potential cover-ups, media “maggots” – it’s like HBO’s The Wire come to life in a city that we used to refer to as “The Good.” Like many, I’m riveted, because I can’t shake the feeling that this is all going to end very badly, at least for Ford.

So among all this, how does our embattled mayor tie in to high cellphone prices? Oh he does, believe me, he does. Sit back, gentle reader, and let me spin you a yarn.

A few years ago, I remember having exasperating conversations with a friend who refused to get a cellphone. This was around 2006 or so, when the technology was going mainstream in Canada. Everyone in our circle of friends had one, but this individual wouldn’t budge on the grounds that he didn’t want to be reachable at all times. He wasn’t alone – despite the spread of cellphones, such logic was pretty common at the time, as hard as it is to believe today.

My friend eventually relented, probably because the counter-logic of our arguments – that having a cellphone and choosing to answer it are two different things – finally made sense. The benefits became clear: a cellphone is more about you being able to reach someone whenever you need to, and not necessarily the other way around. The potential negatives, meanwhile, are either optional or manageable.

Today, I’m having similarly frustrating conversations with him over the smartphone he recently upgraded to. He picked up an Android device and is now regularly using it to surf the web and check Facebook, but he refuses to install any apps on it. He’s a big sports fan, but he won’t use TSN, ESPN or any of the other apps that would make it easier to follow his teams. Why would he do that, he argues, when he can just check websites?

My feeling is he just doesn’t know what apps are or how to use them, and as with his previous general attitude towards new things, he’s just afraid to try. Years from now, as he gets over that inertia, I’m willing to bet he’ll be very fond of apps, which are generally time saving and efficient. A smartphone without them, after all, isn’t very smart.

That overall mindset is probably more common than we like to think, and it strikes me as part of the reason for why Canada is dead last in the developed world in terms of mobile phone uptake. A good portion of the population often wonders why they need that shiny new thing, and they have to be convinced of its benefits before they jump on it. There’s nothing really wrong with that, but it does reflect a lack of imagination or willingness to take risks, which is something Canadians have certainly been accused of.

It’s also an attitude that’s easy to forget when you are immersed in or write about technology all day. In many ways, that makes us tech journalists – and probably the people who read our stuff – the kind of isolated social elitists that populist politicians such as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Toronto’s mayor rail against. While they’re usually using such terms in reference to leftist “downtown” intellectuals, the techno-crowd isn’t too far removed from the criticism. We do often forget that the average Joe doesn’t follow this stuff closely, if at all.

One of the potential side effects of technological advancement is this ever-present possibility or likelihood of a digital divide. Policy makers, technologists, academics and journalists alike routinely debate ways to ensure that all members of a society have the same opportunity to receive the benefits of technology, and that they aren’t just reserved for the rich.

It’s why the issue of cellphone prices has been so hotly argued in Canada for the past few years. With the lowest uptake and correspondingly highest per-user revenues in the developed world, it is clearly a technology that is skewed toward wealthier individuals here. Phones that cost $700 are just the icing on that cake.

There is a very clear digital divide happening in Canada, and not just in terms of what people can afford – there is also a disconnect between consumption and implementation. Numerous reports peg Canadians as big consumers of online services such as Facebook and YouTube, yet plenty of other studies and individuals have found the opposite when it comes to actually using and creating such services for efficiency-building or innovation purposes.

University of Ottawa professor and Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law Michael Geist summarized many of these shortcomings in an appearance before the federal committee on Industry, Science and Technology the other day. Among them:

Lower e-commerce adoption rates by Canadian firms when compared to those in the U.S… mobile device usage was relatively low and only one out of every four [small or medium enterprises] is equipped with enterprise resource planning software or customer relationship management software. Moreover, the use of many online tools – collaborative tools, application sharing, web sharing, or video conferencing – are only used by a small minority of Canadian SMEs. Not only are SMEs slower to adopt [information communications technologies], but their e-commerce profile is relatively weak as well. While the majority of firms said their product mix was not suited to online sales, some SMEs cited lack of technical expertise, lack of resources, or uncertainty of the benefits as the reason for not embracing the online opportunities.

His testimony was given in the context of Canada’s continuing lack of a digital strategy, or a plan from the federal government on how to hook the country up to the economy of the future – one that is knowledge-based and technology driven, rather than oriented around finite resources extracted from the ground. Geist and others have frequently lamented this short-sightedness, only to have their pleas fall on deaf ears. (I have to include myself on that list for things I’ve written in that vein.)

The government’s inaction signifies first that it’s not listening to such demonic techno-elites, and also that technological issues simply aren’t a priority for it or its constituency. There are many people out there like my cellphone-resistant friend for whom this stuff simply does not register, and the government is reflecting that.

In the meantime, declining status on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, OECD broadband rankings and the Economist’s E-Readiness rankings and yes – high cellphone prices – are the results. While the government took some half-hearted action back in 2008 to spur wireless competition in the form of new carriers such as Wind and Mobilicity, it has since sat back and let that wither on the vine, to the point where it’s on the verge of disappearing.

It’s been said that people get the governments they deserve. That may or not be true, but I’m more inclined to believe that governments reflect the people who elect them. Both Harper and especially Ford bill themselves as representing the little guy, the tax-paying blue-collar worker who may need to be convinced that smartphone apps are a good thing. If Canada has high cellphone prices or is otherwise falling behind technologically, it’s not the fault of Harper or Ford or any other politician for that matter. Only the electorate that they are reflecting is responsible, which means the techno-elites may be directing their laments in the wrong direction.


Posted by on May 30, 2013 in government, telecommunications


3 responses to “Rob Ford and the politics of high cellphone bills

  1. Marc Venot

    May 30, 2013 at 1:51 am

    Rob Ford is 150 kg of fun (and decisive action) and we certainly need more people like him.
    About the .app this kind of presentation should be the rule on tv channels. About those why the cbc is doing so poorly on sports when radio-canada has good stuff like on Formula 1?

  2. Matt Shepherd

    May 30, 2013 at 6:02 am

    “Rob Ford is 150 kg of fun (and decisive action) and we certainly need more people like him.”

    The awesome thing about Ford is that you can’t tell a genuine Ford supporter from somebody lampooning the staggering cognitive dissonance/willful ignorance of a Ford supporter. It’s like somebody stuffed Sarah Palin in a Chris Farley suit.

  3. Kevin

    May 30, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    Though it’s not the main point of your article (and I agree with the article as a whole), I still wanted to comment on one section:

    “He picked up an Android device and is now regularly using it to surf the web and check Facebook, but he refuses to install any apps on it. He’s a big sports fan, but he won’t use TSN, ESPN or any of the other apps that would make it easier to follow his teams. Why would he do that, he argues, when he can just check websites?”

    As someone who writes apps for a living, I agree with your friend. Most “apps” should remain websites, unless they add value as being an app (and a link on the home screen isn’t a value add … the same can be done for bookmarks). If they’re simple information presentation with a requirement to be online to use (no offline caching) and make no use of the device-specific hardware (GPS excluded since even access to that is standardised for web sites), then they should remain a responsive website so they can be viewed no matter what device the user chooses.

    TSN, ESPN, CBC, et al, should focus on making great websites that scale well to mobile, and only make “apps” when it really adds something. Otherwise they’re wasting resources and cutting out audience for no real gain.

%d bloggers like this: