Where are the questions about the end-user? And access?

At tomorrow’s IN09 panel, we’re being asked to consider whether the Commission is asking the right questions. We have to focus not only on what’s wrong, but what’s missing as well.

For new media developers and content providers, the ultimate goal is to make an impression on that elusive sensation known as the end-user experience. Two things have to be in place for new media content to succeed. The first is a no-brainer: you pay attention to what end-users want to do, even though you might introduce onliners to a new experience they didn’t know they wanted. That’s the great R&D and marketing challenge in this business (unlike, say, the laundry detergent business). Who knew we wanted all those Google apps, or iPods, or Twitter?

The other condition for success is a little thing called access. The new media hearings brought out all the usual BS about “unlimited shelf space.” Sure, 170 million Web sites and growing sounds like a big improvement on the 500-channel universe. Sure, the barriers to entry are low (ever tried getting a TV licence?). And yeah, we’re working out the bugs in IPv6. But policy wonks don’t refer to the last mile as a “bottleneck” facility for nothing. A 6 or 8 Mbps broadband connection ain’t unlimited shelf space where I come from.

So let’s look at those questions the Commission posed in its 2008-11 notice. As I noted in my submission, this is a proceeding that ultimately concerns the tastes, interests and behaviors not of the vast majority of our fellow citizens. And yet, of the 20 questions posed by the Commission, only a single question – #7 – asks for evidence of what consumers want (para 26): “What is the extent of consumer demands in Canada for broadcasting content in new media?”

But the big problem here is access. It’s bad enough we have one of the developed world’s most under-developed broadband infrastructures. Plus another set of problems being discussed in that other proceeding, on ISP network management practices – which should of course be part and parcel of the new media proceeding. The worst part is our politicians, policymakers and regulators keep claiming Canada is a world leader in broadband connectivity. Along with the meme about how we spend most of our time online watching TV shows, this piece of Ottawa myth-making is going to cause a lot of damage to the new media industry and new media developers.

Back in the good old days we may have had some claim to broadband leadership. Not any more. When the OECD published its broadband ratings last year for 2007, Canada came in 9th among the 30 member countries. A year later we fell to 10th place. Last September, a study was released by the Oxford Said Business School and the Universidad de Oviedo that measures broadband quality by factoring in variables like actual throughput and latency. This qualitative metric – the Broadband Quality Score or BQS – puts Canada in 27th place out of 42 countries, below what is considered the acceptable threshold even for today’s advanced applications, never mind tomorrow’s.

And this just in. On March 2, the ITU released the findings of its latest survey of developments in information and communication technologies in 154 countries for the period from 2002 to 2007 – otherwise known as its ICT Development Index. Once again, any boasting rights we might have had are evaporating. On the main index we stood 9th at the outset of the survey period (2002). Five years later, we’d dropped to 19th place. The key ITU sub-index that reflects what I’ve described here as access combines Internet user penetration, fixed broadband penetration and mobile broadband penetration. Back in 2002, when we were still miles ahead of the US, we stood fourth in the global ranking. Five years later, we come in 21st.

Now our American friends have not only caught up on the numbers (with Canada at least). They’ve also started doing what matters most in new media: talking seriously about a national broadband strategy. That’s the framing for the right questions in 2009.