Don’t assume the only broadband problem is geography

Maduri, Barrett Xplore, ISP, rural, broadband, satellite

"I give credit to The Wire Report. In a short time, it has become the daily “go to” of telecom geeks and executives. However, The Wire Report still prints the views of academics who feel that until Canada gives the 12 residents of Anthracite, Alta., blazing broadband speeds of 4 Mbps, we have not given them anything of value. [...]
While we appreciate the need for professors to posit an academic point of view, we believe that the consequence of arbitrarily defining rural broadband at Internet speeds higher than that which many urban Canadians can access is a self-defeating exercise."

Last week, John Maduri, CEO of rural broadband provider Barrett Xplore, published a very interesting opinion piece in The Wire Report on satellite broadband (“Opinion: Satellite broadband is life-changing for those accustomed to dial-up,” Sept. 21). I have a few comments.

After congratulating The Wire Report on its success, Mr. Maduri frames his stand on the benefits of satellite broadband with the help of a straw man: “The Wire Report still prints the views of academics who feel that until Canada gives the 12 residents of Anthracite, Alta., blazing broadband speeds of 4 Mbps, we have not given them anything of value.”

I will take as entirely coincidental my own association with York University, along with my recent suggestion, in these very pages, that 4 Mbps should be Canada’s new broadband definition threshold.

Mr. Maduri says he “appreciate[s] the need for professors to posit an academic point of view,” but his position seems to imply that The Wire Report would be even better if it weren’t still—all this time later—publishing the views of social misfits who spend too much time in ivory towers, counting angels dancing on pinpoints instead of profits.

The irony is I don’t disagree with the writer’s point of view—only with the way he’s misrepresented my argument. Of course, if you have very little bandwidth, and then you get more, you’re likely to feel better off. Satellite connectivity is a fine solution for many Canadians and Mr. Maduri should be proud of his company’s achievements.

Proud, but maybe a little less defensive. His piece opens with the unusual claim that it’s “sexy” urban broadband that gets “all the camera time” while rural broadband has been pushed to the back of the pack.

Do the paparazzi know something I don’t? The last time I looked, the PM, Minister Clement, the Liberals, the CRTC and lots of provincial pols had pushed urban broadband so far to the back of the pack it has disappeared entirely from the public discourse.

Contrary to what the writer suggests, I never said or implied that the 12 residents of Anthracite will experience no joy until they get to an imagined 4 Mbps connection—or any other threshold beyond their reach.

No one in their right mind expects rural Canadians to wait for the glorious arrival of WiMax and 4G before joining the community of broadbanders. Unfortunately, Mr. Maduri has turned the problem inside out.

The problem in Canada is not that we’re setting the bar too high; the problem is we’ve set the bar too low—not just for bandwidth, but for broadband quality issues and citizen needs as well. Setting the bar high means an ambitious, long-term plan with target speeds fast enough for emerging applications. Speed matters. That doesn’t mean we scrap satellites. Nor does it mean disenfranchising rural Canadians.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) just hiked its broadband threshold to 4 Mbps—and they have no intention of leaving rural Americans out in the cold. Far from it: they actually have a plan (the National Broadband Plan, or NBP) that charts a course for all Americans.

The FCC drew another significant line on the NBP chart. They pegged the uplink for broadband at 1 Mbps, in recognition of the steadily increasing importance of performance parameters other than sheer downlink speeds. Such policy goal- setting exercises may be “arbitrary” for some. But policy goals have an arbitrary quality to them because their whole purpose is to push the market in directions it would otherwise never go in.

Mr. Maduri shares one big assumption with our fearless leaders in Ottawa: that the broadband problem is geography. But don’t fret. Several provinces have announced that their citizens have 100 per cent access to broadband. Access, unfortunately, is not the same thing as actually using fast broadband confidently on a daily basis. We know this because in Canada, about 30 per cent of adults don’t live with broadband.

All the satellites in space won’t close that gap, not merely because of its sheer size but also because of the two factors other than place of residence that are keeping so many Canadians away from broadband. These are, i) not seeing the relevance or benefits of broadband; and, of course, ii) the price.

Mr. Maduri views “business economics” as the appropriate sounding board to determine how and where to grow broadband. That’s great for everyone who’s aware of broadband and its benefits, owns a computer, knows how to use it, and can afford the prices created by an unregulated retail market. However, technology is rapidly becoming a necessary—but far from sufficient—condition of success in Canadian broadband. We now have to get our arms around the politically risky and expensive social issues—a task that will require a seismic shakeup in Ottawa’s deeply held beliefs.


Originally published in The Wire Report