Internet literacy in Canada: the missing policy

Artist’s rendering of Ottawa’s long-term strategy for universal broadband – more wires!

This post, and the next, are pre-prints of my monthly Comment for Telemanagement magazine (Dec-Jan issue: a shoutout to publisher Tim Wilson for his support). As usual, I’m taking liberties with what I submitted, updating some things, fixing others and changing my mind here and there. One change in terminology upfront: I’m using “Internet literacy” instead of the more conventional “digital literacy,” since the big issues concern the use of the global public Internet, rather than resources like consumer electronics (cameras, big-screen TVs, etc). Of course, IPv6 will further blur the distinctions between networked and standalone devices, but we’ll cross that convergent bridge in due course.


Over the last year or two, the CRTC and its political masters have been backing away from their claims about Canada’s world leadership in broadband. They were chastened no doubt by serious studies like the Berkman report to the FCC in February, which invoked many measures of success other than household penetration among the G7. And then things became even worse.

Some thought we could now get on with the crucial issues Ottawa kept ignoring, speed and affordability being near the top of the list. No such luck. The framing of Canada’s online problems shifted from who actually has broadband to who theoretically has access to broadband, i.e. access to an ISP drop or satellite signal.

“Access” is a necessary but far from sufficient condition for getting onto broadband at home. This year a number of provincial politicians and officials shifted the self-congratulatory talk from penetration to access – with several provinces claiming their citizens now have “100% access” to broadband. Meanwhile, I saw no sign of any of our governments talking about why, with 100% access, millions of Canadians are still not adopting broadband.

Today, commentators of every stripe, even in the popular press, are recognizing that the path to broadband leadership goes in three stages: coverage, adoption and utilization. The ultimate goal isn’t technical access; it’s getting citizens to adopt and use broadband.

Problem solved

I recently had a look through the transcripts of the Obligation to Serve hearings held in Timmins and Gatineau (disclaimer: I may have skipped over a few passages). These conversations often provide useful insights into what the CRTC and principal intervenors are thinking about the issues of the day. What we discover in these pages is a regulator too obsessed with technical coverage to entertain any serious discussion about the adoption problem.

Striking a familiar note of pride, Bell Aliant began by noting how great Canada is doing and how misguided it would be to introduce more regulation (October 26, paras 148-151):

“[Getting better broadband information] does not mean that the Commission needs to regulate broadband by setting targets for service characteristics or mandating expansion or upgrades. Such a notion seems to ignore Canada’s track record in the advancement of broadband without regulation, a very strong track record” (my emphasis).

John Maduri, CEO of Barrett, who’s been pushing hard to get some respect for satellite-delivered broadband, took the Aliant view one important step further (October 26, paras 897-898):

“If you look at our coverage map in Appendix 2 to this presentation you will see that we cover every nook and cranny of Canada with our current satellite footprint. Regulatory intervention is not required to extend coverage, our country is already covered. The time has come to stop including the caveat, excluding satellite from the Commission’s statistics. There is no longer a need to qualify the numbers. There is 100 per cent availability now without any caveat” (my emphasis).

Telus’s Mike Hennessy offered pushback on any broadband-related obligations, based in part on the 100% coverage argument (November 1, paras 3844-3846):

“A [broadband] target is not a bad idea, but it can’t just be for national bragging rights; there must be a goal or end game to be meaningful. Because if the target is simply for video services like Netflix, or to surf the web, complete network coverage to achieve that is almost here today. […] So we need to ask: What would be the object of a new obligation to serve at the very point the market is poised to offer 100 percent coverage along with extensive broadband mobility?”

He answered his rhetorical question by noting the appropriate division of labor as between licensees and regulator: “The market in this case has done its job and the role for government, in our view, is to examine any remaining gaps due to the level of digital literacy and income disparity (para 3847: my emphasis).

Not our elephant

At times, the Chair acknowledged the elephant in the room: the roughly 30% of Canadians who don’t have broadband at home, not because they lack access, but because they say they don’t need it or can’t afford it. In an exchange with Marc Garneau on November 2, the Chair explained that this particular elephant is not the Commission’s problem (paras 5456-5457):

“Before I let you go, there is one other question that came up before us, and you haven’t addressed it at all; that it’s not only a question of providing access to the Internet, but it is also providing digital literacy and making sure that people actually use it. Unfortunately, we have about 95 percent, 97 percent access now, but we only have take-up in the seventies. This is really something not for us, but for the government to address. We have heard several representations before us that we should do something. Personally, I don’t see that it’s our job, I see it that it would be much more a government view, but I would be interested in your views on that subject” (my emphasis).

Was this the Chair’s considered legal view, i.e. that this kind of social regulation falls outside the Commission’s jurisdiction? Or was it, as he notes, more like a personal observation on what happens to fit the Commission’s busy agenda right now? Whatever the case, Marc Garneau was one of several intervenors who seemed to agree with this view. As Garneau put it, “digital literacy [is] not something that we felt was appropriate to bring up within the CRTC, but it is something that, as a country, we feel is important” (para 5461). Garneau talked about his party’s dedication to digital and other forms of literacy; but he was, like others, vague as to where the responsibility lies for these social issues.

At the very outset of the hearings, an exchange occurred between Bell Aliant and Vice-Chairman Len Katz that seemed to belie the significance of the non-adoption problem (October 26, paras 638-643). Katz quoted a statement made in Aliant’s testimony about the gap between broadband availability and broadband adoption:

Policy makers would be far better off to concentrate their efforts on policies to encourage adoption and use of broadband rather than on the supply of broadband given that adoption [lags] availability by a wide margin.

Then Mr Katz asked Aliant’s Denis Henry: “Do you have any data to support that statement?” Mr Henry reminded Mr Katz that the data is in the Commission’s own Monitoring Report: “The number that sticks in my mind is 75 percent of the people take it when there’s 95 percent availability.”

In one sense this exchange is old hat: the supplicants bring the data to the Commission, which is starved for resources to do the research on its own. Even so, why didn’t the Vice-Chairman have this material in his briefing book, since it was the Commission that published it in the first place? And even if it hadn’t, were the staff not fretting about a 25-to-30% shortfall in one of the pillars of its “obligation” strategy? Maybe they were – and the word back was, not our problem.