Digital strategy is government’s Phantom Menace

08 Apr
"Me'sa so happy to get 5-megabit broadband!"

“Me’sa so happy to get 5-megabit broadband!”

The year was 1999 and nerds around the world were abuzz for something they had been waiting a seeming eternity for: a new Star Wars movie. Anticipation and expectations couldn’t have been higher going into George Lucas’ long-promised return to the pop culture phenomenon he had set in motion with the Original Trilogy back in 1977. But then, The Phantom Menace happened. And things got even worse with the next one, Attack of the Clones. Lucas redeemed himself somewhat with his third prequel, Revenge of the Sith – I know this because I just rewatched them – but in the end, there was no denying it. The new Star Wars movies were terrible.

And so it is with the equally long-awaited digital strategy from the Canadian government, titled Digital Canada 150. Believe it or not, there are actually a number of similarities between the movies and this bit of government policy. Nerds like me have been waiting for it forever and it has indeed been in the works for a long time. But most crucially, it’s also abjectly terrible.

Divided into five “pillars” – connecting Canadians, protecting Canadians, economic opportunities, digital government and Canadian content – there’s almost no actual “strategy” in the short, 25-page document, which is perhaps why that word isn’t actually in its title despite it being presented as such. Rather, Digital Canada 150 is more a collection of bullet-point reminders of the government’s recent efforts across a number of technologically-related subjects, such as its development of an app commemorating the War of 1812 and the lowering of corporate taxes. And oh yes, there are lots of pretty pictures and useful factoids, like the one that predicts internet usage is going to increase over the next few years. Good thing that’s in there.

There are a few hints of things to come, like a promise to “work with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to develop a plan to unbundle television channels and ensure cable and satellite providers offer Canadian consumers the option to pick and choose the combination of television channels they want,” and the introduction of “new anti-money laundering and anti-terrorist financing regulations for virtual currencies,” which is obviously aimed at the likes of Bitcoin. But otherwise, there are few concrete goals set out and no evidence that any of these isolated efforts are in any way connected to the larger idea of accelerating digital usage or growth by Canadians.

One of the few actual targets is to bring internet access of at least 5 megabits per second to 98 per cent of the population by 2019, but this is a bad plan for several reasons. Firstly, the CRTC already had such a goal in place, except it was supposed to be achieved by 2015, meaning that the government is delaying it another four years. But perhaps more importantly, it’s far less ambitious than what other countries are doing. As University of Ottawa internet law professor Michael Geist points out, Canada’s goal is well behind the likes of Australia, Germany and Sweden in both speed and target dates. Many countries are aiming for speeds of 100 megabits or more. Indeed, the only country that appears to be as unambitious as Canada with its broadband plan is the United States.

Inevitably, the issue of size arises in such discussions. Canada is, after all, one of the biggest countries in the world in terms of land mass, yet it has a relatively small population. That makes it harder and more expensive to roll out services here than in, say, a tiny country like Denmark, right? This is the rationalization that has been used for Canada’s high wireless prices and it has indeed been trotted out for wired home connections too. It’s also one the government has apparently accepted to rationalize its efforts.

Except that it’s nonsense. Canada is, in fact, one of the most urbanized countries in the world, ranking 37th overall with more than 80 per cent of the population bunched up together in cities. The chart below shows urbanization rates among developed countries, according to the United Nations’ population division:


And here’s a chart that strips out all the tiny OECD countries with fewer than 10 million people:


Given the relatively high concentration of the Canadian population, it should actually be easier or more efficient to roll out advanced telecommunications services here than in Germany, the United Kingdom, Norway, Austria or Switzerland, yet all of those countries outstrip Canada in terms of broadband goals and wireless performance in general.

In that vein, Canada’s broadband goal is amazingly lame – it’s the veritable Jar Jar Binks of the entire digital strategy. The government should be shooting for those 100-megabit-plus speeds that others are going for, yet instead it’s settling for what’s barely considered broadband in places such as Pakistan.

As a whole, there is one other way in which the Digital Canada 150 is similar to Star Wars. George Lucas at least had the good sense to sell Star Wars to Disney and allow someone else to have a crack at producing something that fans might be able to appreciate. With the thoroughly lacklustre digital strategy taking four years and three different industry ministers to produce, it’s looking increasingly clear that this is not the government to take Canada forward into a digital future. Observers interested in such matters can’t be faulted for hoping that someone else takes up this task.


Posted by on April 8, 2014 in government


11 responses to “Digital strategy is government’s Phantom Menace

  1. J. Van Leeuwen

    April 8, 2014 at 3:40 pm

    Greetings from the Broadband Communities Summit in sunny Austin, where I’m basking in the radiant heat of the exploding community broadband trend here in the U.S.

    Welcome relief from the largely frozen northern desert I call home (that’s you Canada, and yes, that’s a double entendre).

    The session I’m attending is entitled, “What will a Gigabit do for Austin?”

    The session features a panel of reps from Google, AT&T and Power 1000, all of whom are deploying Gbps fibre networks here in the city of Austin.

    There are over 900 delegates attending the Summit, almost all from the U.S.

    Most are representing the hundreds of communities across the U.S. that have taken the initative to deploy their own broadband networks and build their Digital Economies from the grass roots up, regardless of whether the telecom industry and state or federal government support them in taking such initiative. These communities have realized the cavalry ain’t coming.

    So far, the U.S. telecom and cable industries have successfully lobbied nineteen state governments to enact legislation that hinders or outright bans development of community broadband networks that would compete with their own, even in communities where they have no intention of providing better broadband access.

    They have clearly won some lobbying battles, but the strong consensus is that they are losing the war. Pressure is growing rapidly across the country for legislation and regulatory reform that will make it easier for communities everywhere to build out fibre networks and leverage them to drive economic development.

    There is near-unanimous consensus that future-proof fibre connectivity is now an essential economic and social utility; that 100 Mbps fibre connectivity is a bare minimum for economic development; that Gbps fibre connectivity is rapidly becoming a competitive necessity; and that competitive pricing for Gbps connectivity means the low hundreds of dollars (or better), not the low thousands of dollars (or worse).

    The four Canadians here include one community rep (my client), my business associate and myself, and an Ottawa-based strategic consultant who has all but written off the Canadian market for strategic consulting in digital economic development. He’s had plenty to keep him busy in the U.S. and Europe.

    We Canadians are asleep at the packet switch.

    Like it or not, we have the depressingly unambitious government we deserve, and they clearly have no stomach for a bruising battle with our telecom and cable industries (I’ve been shaking my head since Friday morning).

    So now what?

    Do nothing, and resign ourselves to becoming a sleepy backwater in the most exciting growth economies of the 21st century?

    Or respond to the opportunity like all these entrepreneurial communities here in the U.S., and start building up from the grassroots?

    If you are uncertain, please turn to your children – grown up or not – and let them decide.

    If you don’t have children, check out

    The northern desert isn’t completely frozen…

  2. jvanl

    April 8, 2014 at 6:52 pm

    Another dispatch from the Broadband Communities Summit in beautiful Austin, TX.

    Just chatting with Matt Simonson from the City of Ottawa.

    Get a load of this…

    It seems the City is deploying a fibre-to-the-business network as a municipal utility.

    They started by hooking up City Hall and other municipal facilities last year, then educational institutions, and now they are connecting large industrial enterprises. They will build out to remaining businesses on a district-by-district basis, based on where demand is strongest.

    I asked Matt why the City of Ottawa is taking such bold initiative.

    He says it’s because their incumbent network operators aren’t interested to provide the scalable, affordable, reliable, high-performance broadband connectivity that Ottawa’s largest employers told them was essential to operational sustainability… never mind growth.

    Wow. Congratulations, City of Ottawa… Now THAT’S the courageous leadership we need in Canada.

    Wait… say that again Matt?

    You’re from Ottawa KANSAS?


    Well…congratulations anyways!

    The city of Ottawa is a thriving agricultural community of 14,000 people in rural eastern Kansas. The city is the birthplace of celebrated mathematician John Griggs Thompson, whose doctoral thesis provided a robust solution to the vexing problem of nilpotency of Frobenius kernels.,_Kansas

    Matt Simonson is the City of Ottawa’s multimedia specialist, and co-founder of YouTube channel What’s Up Ottawa!

  3. steve

    April 9, 2014 at 10:00 am

    The urbanization argument is a canard. It’s still 5000 km from Vancouver to Quebec City. And how is urbanization relevant when talking about rural connectivity?

    • Peter Nowak

      April 9, 2014 at 11:16 am

      A) It’s relatively cheap and simple to lay backhaul connectivity across long distances. It’s only in the “last mile” to customers’ homes that things get expensive and tricky. The distance between Vancouver and Quebec City is largely irrelevant.
      B) Besides that, no wired internet provider in the country covers that distance for residential service.
      C) Yes, it is harder to get better service to the 20% of people living in rural areas but the point of the post above is that the government should be more ambitious with the other 80%, just as countries with less urbanized populations are.

      • Michael Elling (@Infostack)

        April 9, 2014 at 11:36 am

        Steve, Peter, look at Allied Fiber’s strategy with it’s splice/interconnection points every mile and colos every 60 miles. Add wireless/hetnets to that, extend 1-way HD content as far to the edge (layer 2/3 tradeoff) and push the WAN/MAN demarc as far to the edge and you will drive access costs down for all. This “edge densification” strategy is particularly important for achieving low-cost, universal supply for the bottom quintile, be it defined by income, teledensity or usage.

        This strategy is the only way to economically solve for 4k, 2-way HD, increased BB mobility, and the IoE/IoT. All trends that have started and will develop rapidly if allowed to. Latency, QoS, are all super critical to solve for in order to scale and drive marginal costs (and pricing) down. The current business models and regulatory regimes need to understand and reflect this. Comcast/netflix deal is driving the demarc point the wrong way (inwards and downwards). See how that issue relates:

  4. D Quintin

    April 10, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    Urbanization doesn’t make the cities any closer together. You see, the thing about networks is you need, you know, wires and stuff to, like, connect things. Population density is part of the equation. Geography is the bigger part.

  5. Brenda

    April 11, 2014 at 6:02 am

    Just a general thought. Geographics don’t seem to pose a problem when they push through a pipeline. However, I can relate to the ‘last mile’.

%d bloggers like this: