On the surface, this seems like a wonderful initiative promising cheap broadband access to an entire population, but there are a number of issues to consider. First, is it really the government's place to fund this kind of program? Second, should the public be footing the bill? Third, is it really necessary and does it make sense?
Should the government be stepping in to grant low-cost broadband access to all its citizens? I would like to tackle this point by using roads as an analogy. Canada is a nation where a large portion of its population lives near urban centres and so it makes sense to build roads between those urban centres as they will experience frequent use. However, what about remote areas in the north? Is it worth building highways to reach them so that they may experience the same mobility than those living in urban centres? What about if this means that those in more populated areas subsidise roads for less populated areas? I think that many will agree that everyone in a country should have access to the same degree of mobility as this translates into access to goods and services. Many will probably still agree that the government should distribute public funds in order to make equal access to mobility a reality. Does this translate into broadband? The internet provides access to goods and services much like roads do. It would be very expensive to provide the same level of broadband to those in remote regions that those in more populated regions enjoy. While those in populated regions can afford high-speed internet access, those in remote areas probably cannot. If broadband in the future is to become what roads are in the present then it is the government's responsibility to ensure equal access as the private sector, acting on its own, would largely ignore remote areas as they are unprofitable.
Which brings me to my next issue: Should the public be footing the bill? Continuing with the road analogy, those living in high-population areas already subsidise access to remote locations. Closer to the issue of broadband, Bell Canada (Canada's local telephone service provider) uses revenue from high population areas to subsidise telephone access in remote areas. However, I should point out that Bell Canada does this only because the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, Canada's regulatory body) requires them to do so. Why can't broadband fall under the same regulation? If there is to be an organisation of major internet access providers, why not force them to provide equal access across the nation with government subsidies rather than having the public pay the entire $4-billion tab? If access to remote communities is a large issue, why not do as the Globe & Mail article "How far does Ottawa go for broadband access?" suggests and "encourage smaller, alternative carriers to step into the market" as is currently the case with cable television. Working together with the private sector could do well to lessen the burden on the public while still maintaining a reasonable level quality for all. This has worked for the telephone system in the past, why not broadband?
Putting forth the vision and the money is one thing, but does Canada really need universal access to broadband? It is no question that the internet provides unparallelled connectivity between people but is this kind of initiative really necessary to make all Canadians truly connected? In remote areas, where many people might not even have enough money to buy a computer, will this do them any better than, say, improved roads or living conditions? Do people even want it? Mathew Ingram of The Globe & Mail puts it well in his article "Ottawa's broadband plan is dumb and expensive":
"Some people are probably more than happy to be without it, in the same way that some people are quite happy to live without cable television. Why not pour billions of dollars into ensuring that every Canadian has access to
gourmet coffee, or that every rural resident can afford to buy a new truck once a year? That $2-billion could be spent on better roads, or even upgrading the regular old rural telephone system."
It is a good point but, then again, you could have said the same thing about the telephone fifty years ago. You could also say the same about any number of existing government programs as Ed Rousseau says in his rebuttal, "Broader perspective". People may not want or need broadband now, but in ten years it might be just as important as the telephone is now. A government plan such as this would be able to force the infrastructure so that it is ready when it is needed.
Which leads me to another question: Does this make sense on a technology level? The report seems to focus on DSL and cable, but what about other technologies? Three years is a long time and other, more viable alternatives might surface, such as satellite-based broadband which is starting to come into being in Canada. The problem with forward-looking plans like these is that they cannot accurately predict the future. In three years, everything might change and this report may look like an artifact from a prior era.
All-in-all government initiatives like Canada's plan to provide universal access to broadband are a good thing in that they look towards the future. There is no question in my mind as to whether it is the government's place to propose such an undertaking. Whereas the private sector is only interested in profit and affordability, plans like these tackle the social issues of broadband access. Whether or not the internal workings of those plans make sense or whether it is worth the public funding is a completely different story. Canada's report has good intentions but its implementation might be better thought-out to include the private sector in order to reduce costs to the taxpayers.