Issue | Canada needs to improve wireless and broadband access, penetration and use to compete in the global digital economy.
Synopsis | Recent advances in digital technologies are changing education, medicine, government services, commerce, entertainment and business practices. Improved access to broadband Internet could provide numerous social and economic benefits for Canadians, and may allow Canada to regain its position as a leader in the global digital economy.
Timing | Although Canada does not have a national digital strategy, public consultations for developing a federal strategy were held in 2010.
Information and communications technology is reshaping economies and societies around the globe. Recent advances in digital technologies, especially increased Internet speed and capabilities, are changing education, medicine, government services, commerce, entertainment and business practices.
Until recently, Canada was a world leader in telecommunications. Several recent international studies now suggest that Canadians cannot obtain the same speed and service for broadband Internet as subscribers in other developed countries, and they pay higher average monthly subscription prices.1 The combination of higher price and lower-quality service has led to relatively low penetration rates (the percentage of households with broadband Internet subscriptions), compared with those in other developed countries. In 2009, though broadband was available to 95% of Canadian households, only 62% subscribed to it.2
In rural and isolated regions, highspeed Internet is not always available or affordable, creating a “digital divide” between rural and urban Canada (see figure). Eliminating this digital divide is important for domestic equity, and it would allow more Canadians to take part in the domestic and international digital economy.
|Broadband Availability in Canada: Urban Versus Rural, 2009|
|Source: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using data from Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, Communications Monitoring Report, July 2010.|
Government infrastructure programs have helped bridge this gulf, as have technological advances in the wireless and satellite delivery of broadband.
A faster, more accessible and competitive digital network could provide significant social and economic benefits for Canadians. Tapping recent advances in information and communications technology could help make Canadian companies more innovative, which would help address Canada’s perennial problem of relatively low productivity.3
Canada has world-class researchers in academia, government and the private sector. Yet compared with the performance of other countries, Canada’s ability to convert scientific research into commercial success continues to pose a challenge.4 Some Canadian companies do succeed – for example, Research In Motion; MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates; and DragonWave are internationally recognized for having leveraged advances in information and communications technology to become global powerhouses.
Over 20 countries have national digital plans. Estonia, now a world leader in e-government, issued its national plan in 1998. France had a national digital plan in 2008, and the United Kingdom in 2009. The United States presented its national broadband plan in 2010. Although Canada does not have a national digital strategy, public consultations for developing a federal strategy were held in 2010.
The national plans in place differ in detail but share a number of common elements, including a general pledge for universal broadband access, goals for broadband speed, and recognition of the need for digital literacy. Almost all of the plans announce the nation’s desire to take a leadership position in the digital economy. The differences among the plans are country-specific, involving geography and population distribution, as well as attitudes toward digital security, intellectual property rights and promotion of national cultural content.
Several groups have argued that the federal government should take a leading role in a digital society and become an active model for Canadians in the use of digital technology. Provincial and territorial governments also have important roles to play in shaping Canada’s digital society, particularly as digital technology increasingly enters areas for which they are responsible, such as the delivery of health services and education.
Through various funding efforts, all levels of government in Canada have shown the importance they place on improving Canadians’ access to broadband. This expansion may allow Canadians to reap fully the benefits of a 21st century digital society, and it could help Canada to regain its position as a global telecommunications leader.
© Library of Parliament 2011