Election 2011 Issue: Rural Broadband

Today Michael Geist tweeted that the Liberals have released their party platform [pdf], and with it a strategy for the Canadian Digital Economy. One of the issues they discuss is access to broadband Internet for rural Canadians. Here are the relevant sections:

Rural Broadband

Canada’s economy is increasingly knit together through the internet. As jobs, education, and communication become more dependent on the internet, Canadians without access or relevant skills will be left behind.

In 2006, Canada’s Telecommunications Review Panel recommended the federal government achieve 100 percent high-speed internet connectivity by 2010. This goal was not achieved under the Conservative government. According to the CRTC, in 2009 close to 800,000 Canadian households (20 percent of all rural Canadians) still could not access high-speed internet. Although Canada ranked second in the world in internet connectivity in 2000, we’ve now fallen to tenth place. This threatens our economic competitiveness and quality of life.

Using proceeds from the upcoming spectrum auction slated for 2012, a Liberal government will set a goal of 100 percent high-speed internet connectivity of at least 1.5 MB/sec for all Canadian communities within three years of being elected. This commitment will increase the availability of affordable line and wireless connectivity, and improve mobile phone coverage in rural areas.

The Digital Canada of Tomorrow

Access to Broadband for All Canadians. Liberals consider access to a high-speed broadband Internet connection essential infrastructure, just as the electricity grid and the telephone network were over a century ago. A Liberal government will publicly tender contracts for private companies to install broadband capacity for the hundreds of thousands of Canadians in rural, remote or northern areas who do not currently have access. To make those contracts economical for private investment, we will provide $500 million in support, allowing Canada to achieve basic high-speed Internet access for all Canadian households within three years. The source of that investment will be the next spectrum auction for wireless licensing rights.
I'm pleased to see this issue being discussed at the national level, and connected to an election. Access to high-speed Internet is no longer a nice-to-have in Canada, but a requirement for participation in society economically, culturally, and politically. And the situation today, in rural Canada, is bleak.Very  bleak.

My family lives in rural Ontario. Our property is surrounded by woods and farmland, and we're located less than 100km from most of Canada's tech hotspots (38km from Waterloo, 65km from Mississauga, and 80km from downtown Toronto). We can't get broadband Internet here. We are, like many Canadians, living beyond the so-called Last Mile. Many of our neighbours use dial-up (I'm not kidding), satellite (very high latency, low speeds, expensive), use wireless solutions, or rely on insanely expensive cellular networks. There is no potential for cable or DSL.

My job requires good Internet, so we were forced to build a 110' steel tower on our property, and use wireless link. This was (and is) incredibly expensive, and has been the source of endless frustration over the years, as small ISPs come and go in our area. I have had to build and now support my own telecommunications infrastructure, and I'm part of the lucky few who can manage to do it, both financially and technically. I'm very much in the minority.

There are many reasons why access to broadband is important in rural areas. The stereotype of red-necked, rural dwellers is completely false. My immediate neighbours include business people, professors, journalists, scientists, teachers, medical practitioners, etc. We need Internet for our business (the lack of stores here means we use mail order a lot), family lives (almost all media is now sold and accessed online), education (we home schoool, for example, and high school students in the area are expected to participate in online projects use the school's web site for homework), etc.

We also need broadband Internet in order to be fully engaged citizens and political participants in the year 2011. One doesn't need to look far for examples of why this is so, from uprisings in the Arab world, election fallout in Iran, or protests and political movements organizing online. When the Egyptian government cut Internet access to its people during the recent protests, in order to cutoff professional and citizen journalism, it was denounced the world over. And yet, most of the people who live around me can't participate in the existing digital world, let alone the one that's coming.

I have first hand experience with what the lack of proper broadband is doing to political and civic participation in rural Ontario. Over the past year my family has become very involved in fighting a local and provincial issue. This has meant community organizing, participation in media communications, innumerable hours of research and work on legal documents. One of the things that my friends and colleagues in major Canadian cities, where broadband is plentiful and fairly cheap (by Canadian standards, at least), can do that we can't is share documents with each other. This sounds ridiculous to write in 2011, but it's absolutely at the heart of the problem: most people in our community, and communities like ours, are hesitant to send each other electronic documents because of the time it takes to upload/download, the potential to clog dial-up lines, etc.

Consider this: the Liberal's election platform is a 5.8m PDF file. That's nothing for anyone living in a broadband world. But I know from experience (painful experience), that this is exactly the sort of file that people with rural broadband will choose to skip downloading. So that means they don't get to read it, and don't pass it to friends. This file is one small example of the huge problem we face: if you want to work on political issues, on science, on data, on media--you have to be able to work with files that are 10s and 100s of megabytes. If you can't, you're out of the game. Full stop.

I'm glad to see the Liberals starting to discuss this issue, and I'm looking forward to reading what the other parties will be saying. I'll be writing my local candidates about this very issue. I don't think what the Liberals are describing goes far enough (1.5M isn't enough today, and certainly won't be by the time it gets installed in 5 years). I'm also skeptical about the private sector making good on these political promises. The CRTC already told Bell it would need to collect extra money in order to solve this problem, and instead of doing that, they sent all their customers rebate cheques. I don't need a rebate, I need my community to connected to the rest of Canada and the world.

I'm lucky. I was on Twitter and saw Geist tweet this, was able to download the PDF file from the Liberals, can blog about it now. I'm engaged in the political conversation that's happening digitally. I'm not the norm in rural Canada, and it's only going to get worse the longer we leave this issue. Our government needs to step and and solve what the private sector never will: all Canadians need access to realistic broadband.