More broadband baloney: the phony “access” metric vs actual users

I was approached recently to talk with the Wire Report and CBC Radio about broadband access. One good thing about talking to journalists like Karen Fournier is they tend to be on top of breaking news. You learn some things. In this case, I learned what provincial officials have been going around saying to their lucky citizens about their alleged “access” to broadband.

Turns out many of these officials have the same bizarre ideas about broadband as their federal counterparts, as you would glean from the article’s title: Provinces criticized for reporting 100 per cent broadband access (sub. req’d). It may be ignorance, it may be manipulation, probably a little from each column:

The provinces of Saskatchewan, P.E.I., Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, as well as the Yukon, say they have broadband penetration rates—or access rates—of 100 per cent.

Other provinces (except Newfoundland) apparently register over 92%. Karen turns to Statistics Canada for a reality check, in the guise of its May 2010 Canadian Internet Use Survey. Says Karen:

Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick may boast 100 penetration, but according to Statistics Canada, 77, 76 and 73 per cent of residents, respectively, use the Internet. Alberta and British Columbia have the highest number of users, at 85 per cent.

wire, wiring, ISP, dropLet’s back up and get our terminology straight. I’m not sure who if anyone thinks access and penetration are synonymous, but they aren’t.

Penetration: refers to that part of the market that has working broadband in their homes.

Access: is a slippery ambiguity. It can refer to homes or individuals with “access” to broadband by dint of having it in their homes, as part of the “penetrated market.” But in its professional use, “access” means simply you live in a residence for which you could order broadband if you wanted to. In that sense “access” is purely geographical, and it’s got nothing to do with either the needs of citizens or the nature and quality of the service in question. As Harold Innis might say, it’s about the patriation into our communications infrastructure of territory that was outside the fold.

When you’re announcing major policy initiatives, not being sure whether you’re talking about people with broadband (“penetration”) or those who don’t have it but could (“access”) is bad enough. But it gets worse.

People don’t care about how many other people have broadband or access to it. They care about their own experience of broadband, as a purchase and as a set of activities. This is a purchase decision that involves way more than the physical possibility of being able to access something. As I’ve written before, there are several other crucial conditions that affect the willingness and ability of consumers to make the broadband purchase:

  • Are they aware it exists?
  • Do they know how to use it and what its potential benefits are?
  • Can they afford it?

And if they do go ahead and become broadbanders, will they get what they paid for? In North America today, highly unlikely.

If I live in a small Canadian town, what do I care if the provincial official says, hey you lucky people, you all have access to broadband now! There are no benefits stemming from the physical possiblity of going onto broadband; benefits only come with informed use. The semi-skilled worker who’s been unemployed for a long time doesn’t benefit from access or penetration if he’s not on broadband – and even if he is, he’s still at a serious disadvantage if he’s unable to find his way around job sites, government services and so on.

snail, speed, slow

The message Ottawa never heard: speed matters

Those dubious provincial officials are also guilty of suppressing debate about speed – what the minimum targets are or what ambitious targets should be (if I’ve missed something, I’d love to stand corrected). I assume the tacit assumption across Canada now for the broadband floor is 1.5 Mbps. That’s the figure institutionalized by Industry Canada’s broadband program and the CRTC’s recent online consultation. One of the people I talked to at CBC Radio wondered what all the fuss was about, as broadband, she mused, is just a wire you stick in your computer. I suspect this misapprehension is very common.

I noted in the Wire Report article that the FCC has raised its threshold to 4 Mbps in the downlink and 1 in the uplink. Canada’s inattention to the details now means there’s not even honorable mentions of the uplink – and don’t hold your breath for latency. Canada is headed for even more embarrassment in the international rankings. The broadband quality shortfall is an issue I intend to discuss on a panel at the IN 10 conference on Tuesday (the panel is Making A Case For A National Digital Media Strategy). My point: over the next three or four years, content developers will lose their ability to reach Canadian onliners with products like real-time gaming, especially using HD or 3D technologies. The hotter their products (and thus the more bandwidth-intensive), the less likely it is that mainstream onliners will have the specs to participate. (Continues…)


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