Broadband politics in Ottawa and Washington (Part 1)

Ottawa has promised to spend $225 million on the nation’s broadband infrastructure. I’ve been digging around trying to find the details. An advanced search or 2 in Google brought up, uh, me as the top hit. Not a promising sign.

The Economic Action Plan is the dumbed-down Web version of the Flaherty budget tabled in January. From the footers, it looks like the Harper Government got sold the Platinum Social Software Pack by some well-tailored Ottawa consultants who don’t actually know what “social software” means. You can send the Harper Government email, subscribe to their news thingy and paste their RSS feed into your aggregator. You can totally visit them on Facebook, Flickr, Youtube and MySpace. Plus you can follow them on Twitter. OMG.

Get yer mug outta the way. If you’re going to hike your skirt up that far, you better be ready to follow through. Somebody please tell these guys that in a grand plan to rescue our devastated economy, the pages stained with tears, you don’t use social software as a vanity press – all the while keeping vital information hidden from public scrutiny. Vain, moi? Click on the Facebook link: Stephen Harper’s page. Click on the Flickr link: Stephen Harper’s page. Click on the Youtube link: Stephen Harper’s page. Click on the Myspace link: Stephen Harper’s page. This looks like a pattern to me.

After 28 months of trying to be cool, the PM’s Youtube YouTube page has a grand total of 520 (update) 521 subscribers. Compared to what? Compared e.g. to a 17-year-old Canadian guy named Rainey whose “obsession with reptiles” has nearly 10 times as many subs as the PM – 4,896 (update) 4,947 to be exact. Meanwhile, the first pic in the PM’s Flickr photostream is devoted to the Pet Adoption of the Week. These guys even manage to make subscribing to their “ENEWS” sound robotic and surreal:

“Who should subscribe? Anyone interested in receiving, by email, communication material” [emphasis added].

About what, how to adopt Bundy the cat?

Where’s the beef? Let’s turn our attention to the government’s “Funding for Knowledge and Information Infrastructure.” The site devoted to Canada’s Economic Action Plan has a link to what is optimistically described as the Full Report. The broadband stuff is in the section entitled “Immediate Action to Build Infrastructure.” I went looking for useful points of comparison – and substance.

The first point of comparison is the monies dedicated to growing Canada’s knowledge infrastructure. This involves an expenditure of “more than $3.1 billion over two years for investments in knowledge infrastructure that will help to build Canada’s capacity for innovation in the longer term while providing short-term economic stimulus across the country.” This basket comprises several worthy items, from upgrading university and federal research facilities to supporting Canada’s Vision for the North. Finally, at the end of the list, broadband:

“Extending Access to Broadband Services in Rural Communities: Preliminary consultations have been held with provinces, territories and the private sector to design a $225-million program over three years beginning in 2009–10 to extend and improve broadband coverage to all currently underserved communities. A call for applications is expected to be issued by summer 2009.”

The $225 million broadband allocation is nominally 7.8% of the total “knowledge budget” of $3.1 billion. It’s nominal because the $225 million is spread over three years, not two. To clarify the scheduling, you need to go back to Budget 2009. In Table 3.7 on p.160,  there’s a line item called “Extending access to broadband services in rural communities.” This says the government intends to spend $100 million in 2009-10 and another $100 million in 2010-11, for a total of $200 million. So on a two-year basis, the proportion allocated to broadband drops from 7.8% to 6.5%.

As bad as these numbers are, I’m way more concerned about the cavalier, closed-door way in which the government is developing this program.

Answers please. Who are the folks from the private sector that are being “consulted”? Why does the budget say (p.153) we’re closing the broadband gap in Canada “by encouraging the private development of rural broadband infrastructure”? Has the minister decided that municipal governments, for example, have no role to play? Will outside experts such as members of the academic community be invited to pass judgment on the best way to proceed? What about the CRTC, which is in the middle of the most important proceeding ever convened on the management of Canada’s broadband infrastructure? What is “improved” broadband coverage – quantified, in megabits per second? And using what delivery technologies?

Here’s what we need, now:

1. Myth-making – For the Harper Government to stop spouting more platitudinous bullshit about how “Canada remains one of the most connected nations in the world, with the highest broadband connection rate among the G7 countries” (Budget 2009, p.153).

2. Shovel-ready – For the Harper Government to recognize that broadband has a crucial role to play in the information economy, not merely the ditch-digging economy.

3. Underserved – For the Harper Government to cop to the fact that all Canadians are underserved, not just those living in remote and rural areas of the country.

4. Private sector – For the Harper Government to get way less cozy with its private-sector friends and give the rest of us the opportunity to provide advice on the information budget.

If the Harper Government imagines these issues should only be explored in smoke-filled back rooms, wait till Canadians find out about Washington’s sophisticated, transparent and well organized approach to planning the future of broadband. Here’s a sample of what we’re missing, taken from the current due diligence activities of the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, chaired by Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey.

Oversight of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009: Broadband

“The Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet held a hearing titled, “Oversight of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009: Broadband,” at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, April 2, 2009, in 2322 Rayburn House Office Building to examine issues related to the broadband programs created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Recovery Act).

“The hearing examined efforts by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Rural Utilities Service to carry out the broadband programs established by the Recovery Act. The Subcommittee also received testimony from public sector and non-profit entities concerning the broadband programs.”

Testimony from public sector and non-profit entities concerning the broadband programs – gasp! Go look at what a well-designed government Web page looks like – one that’s intended to include, not exclude the great unwashed public. And stay tuned for Part 2.

3 thoughts on “Broadband politics in Ottawa and Washington (Part 1)

  1. I agree. We need detailed answers from the Harper government on how they are planning to spend the money.

    In the US, the NTIA and RUS have not yet decided on how to divide up the $7.2 billion broadband stimulus money. Meanwhile it’s easy to find out about the progress NTIA and RUS are making from online sources like Benton Headlines.

    In Canada, not only is it difficult to find information regarding this $225 million broadband infrastructure funding, but the government plans to subsidize the private sector to deliver broadband service in rural areas. Does this mean the government is going to hand over the money to ISPs (the big ISPs) and let them use the taxpayers’ money to build their own infrastructure, then continue to charge us unreasonable prices? If so, it seems the Harper government is not aware of how dissatisfied Canadians are with the broadband service provided by the big ISPs, like Rogers and Bell.

    Why not save money by doing it right the first time? (Honestly, how can $225 million possibly improve our broadband infrastructure? Build more copper wires?) Increase the budget substantially and invest in next-generation broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas. The government should certainly involve municipalities in deciding how and where to deploy subsidized broadband infrastructure (see e.g. Fred-eZone in Fredericton). It is the taxpayers’ money after all. There are many other scenarios that should also be explored, like giving money to smaller ISPs to help develop facilities-based competition.

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