On June 1st, 2016, at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, CIRA held its sixth annual Canadian Internet Forum: Broadband and the Modern Digital Economy. The forum brought together an estimated 150 participants (both in person and online) from civil society, the private sector, government, and the technical community. Participants on-site and online discussed and debated the integral role of quality, affordable, high-speed Internet and Canada’s competitive position in the global economy, with the goal of informing policy and Internet governance discussions in Canada and internationally.
Canadian journalist, David Akin moderated the day-long forum, which was made up of a keynote speech, and three panel presentations. There was active participation from the audience, both during the plenary sessions as well as in the facilitated table discussions.
The importance of Broadband to the digital economy
The forum began with the presentation of some important statistics. No business today is run without the help of information and communications technologies (ICTs). The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports that 95 per cent of business enterprises among its 34 member countries had a broadband connection in 2014.i Broadband is an essential part of the digital economy, but also of the overall economy. Citizens rely on high-speed Internet to access basic services like healthcare and job training, as well as pertinent information that allows them to fully participate in democratic society. A 2016 survey conducted by CIRA and the Strategic Counsel found that “75 per cent of Canadian Internet users agree that having Internet access is critical for their ability to gain new skills.”ii
Despite this, at least five per cent of Canadian households lack access to quality high-speed Internet, which has previously been defined as 5Mbps download speed, a number that’s increasingly become moot as use of network functionality requires ever more bandwidth. Access globally is also a problem. The World Economic Forum reported in April of this year “some 4 billion people – more than 55% of the world’s population – do not use the Internet.”iii There is growing research to suggest that the widening digital chasm is contributing to an increased socio-economic divide within Canada and around the world.
“The quality of broadband and the price of broadband form the digital currency of this country,” said CIRA president and CEO Byron Holland in his opening remarks.
Countries that are more progressive and adopt ICTs and the Internet in a faster and more meaningful way see actual, material bumps in GDP,” Holland told the CIF audience. “This is not just theoretical... [ICT adoption] is critical for our overall economy.
Holland went onto say that “Canada doesn’t rank nearly as highly in all things Internet and broadband as we once did.” He challenged the forum presenters and participants to identify the key challenges to Canadian access and innovation, to put forth solutions that could be brought forward to the private sector, to governments at all levels, and presented on the international stage at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in December 2016.
i OECD (2015), OECD Digital Economy Outlook 2015, OECD Publishing, Paris. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264232440-en - page 132
ii FROM BROADBAND ACCESS TO SMART ECONOMIES - Technology, skills and Canada’s future CIRA 2016
iii Internet for All: A Framework for Accelerating Internet Access and Adoption, page 5
A new focus on innovation
The forum’s keynote speaker was Kelly Gillis, associate deputy minister of Canada’s newly named federal Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, formerly Industry Canada.
If we’re talking about innovation and doing things smarter, faster and better, we’re talking about the broadband Internet,” Gillis told the forum audience. “The Internet is the infrastructure that [Canada’s] innovation agenda will run on.
Gillis made the link between support for ITC technologies, including broadband Internet and a spectrum of socioeconomic issues, from climate change to poverty. She made the case for a broad-reaching federal strategy that would foster innovation and collaboration among private industry, communities, governments and civil society in order to meet those socio-economic challenges.
Identifying Challenges – Panel Presentations
Data presented in the first panel, “Broadband, ICTs and the evolving digital economy,” presented evidence that Canadians do not have equal access to high-speed broadband Internet, with huge discrepancies in available download speeds between rural and remote parts of the country and urban centres. Lack of access is a contributing factor to Canada’s decline as an innovation leader in international rankings, particularly in the area of mobile broadband penetration and cost. As Canada’s population ages and the workforce declines, the case for ICT adoption to boost individual and firm productivity takes on a renewed urgency in order to remain competitive in the digital economy.
In the second panel, “High-speed networks and innovative approaches to broadband delivery,” presenters and forum participants agreed that broadband is the integral infrastructure upon which ICT innovations will be developed. Traditional delivery methods of broadband are no longer sufficiant to get the job done, with bandwidth requirements ever-increasing in order to transfer immense amounts of data. Next generation networks will necessarily rely on cloud-based software to be administered efficiently. At the same time, the limitations of fibre in remote and rural areas of the country are bringing a new urgency in the race for spectrum acquisition and the establishment of near-earth satellites to maintain Canada’s competitive position internationally.
The third panel, “Broadband access and the skills gap,” highlighted that, in order to access and develop these technologies, Canada requires a skilled and adaptable IT workforce going forward. It’s anticipated there will be 200,000 IT jobs available in 2020, without the talent to fill them. The so-called “digital natives,” children that have grown up with connectivity and devices, are not graduating from secondary or post-secondary education with the ability to understand, create and manipulate new technologies. At the same time, Canada has seen a decline in “fundamental skills” in all age cohorts – literacy, numeracy and problem-solving –which are necessary to be adaptable and creative content creators. Panelists identified several “barriers to access,” which are disproportionately excluding women, First Nations, low-income groups and older Canadians from participating in the digital economy.
Closing remarks: Byron Holland, CIRA president and CEO
In his closing remarks, Holland noted a defined shift over the last two years at the CIF, toward “future-proofing Canada’s Internet”. He was encouraged that panelists and participants at the forum focused on the need for an overarching federal broadband strategy to carry Canada into the future.
We need strategies, a pot of money and a community willing to execute those strategies,” said Holland. “What I hear at the federal level is that there’s a pot of money, there’s a desire for strategy... so all of us in this room can start to execute on making those strategies happen.
Holland encouraged the participants to extend and continue the conversation with people in their personal and professional networks to raise the volume and prominence of the forum.
A thorough account of the keynote and panel discussions can be read in the full report.
Commentary and feedback from participants
Obtaining feedback from a breadth of participants is one of the core objectives of the CIF. As well as providing commentary from the floor, each of the 20 tables at the CIF reviewed the subject matter, summarized key points and made recommendations based on their analysis in discussions facilitated by CIRA staff.
There was near consensus that the success of Canada’s digital economy relies on strategic direction and funding. Participants overwhelming argued for a long-term federal broadband strategy that would acknowledge the important of broadband access for full socio-economic participation of Canadians in the new digital economy. Having the proper infrastructure in place would form the backbone of a policy that would ultimately offer financial support to skills development, research and strategic partnerships that drive innovation.
“Infrastructure without education and economic incentives is incomplete,” said one participant.
A federal broadband strategy would rely on the following principles:
1. Broadband infrastructure and access are preconditions to innovation in the digital economy
Recognizing that broadband is the platform upon which innovation to drive economic growth will occur, universal access to broadband should be a priority of a national innovation strategy. This starts with an updated definition of minimum universal access, participants said, and should include financial incentives for private industry to help remote communities access affordable, quality networks.
Where the Internet ends, so does prosperity,” said participant Lynn Hamilton, president of the Internet Society, Canadian chapter. “The minute you have slow speeds, the minute you are not an innovator; you are not moving forward.
“If we only have slow speed, we can only have slow-speed ideas,” said one participant. But they also noted, that “we need to have enough for everybody before we focus on the speed thing.”
2. Collaboration is integral to innovation
A federal broadband strategy should foster the collaboration of individuals, the private sector, communities and different levels of government to champion innovation.
One participant spoke of “removing barriers to the little guys,” including eliminating regulatory red tape, and offering small start-ups access to seed money, venture capital and other private sector partnerships. Another noted that support of open source technology is a key component of innovation.
When you have your innovators and you’re not giving them access to the same tools the big guys have, you’re disabling the people who are really changing the industry and pushing the industry forward,” said one participant. The little guys will be “the disruptors, who will drive the industry forward but they require access to all the same tools that the traditional players.”
Participants noted the “Importance of discoverability and commercialization and getting [innovation] of silos.” Others recognized the potential of supporting local communities in setting up their own broadband networks. Coquitlam’s municipal network, QNet, was presented as an example of how municipalities are well-positioned to develop and administer local broadband. Another participant noted that a lot of innovation happens locally, where communities come together to solve a collective problem. She pointed to the example of an aboriginal group in Sioux Lookout, Ont. that launched KNet, as Canada’s first indigenous-owned broadband network. iv
3. A focus on lifelong skills and education
Participants broadly agreed that lifelong skills development and training should be the focus of a comprehensive digital broadband strategy, with federal programs and money available to people who take part in qualifying programs. Recognizing that it’s difficult to predict the precise skills that will be required in the future, some effort should be made to define and articulate skill requirements and what kinds of career paths are available for people if they attain these skills, participants said.
There was recognition that Canadian elementary and secondary schools are lacking access to the tools, resources and training required to raise the next generation of IT professionals. There was broad consensus that, despite education being under the jurisdiction of provincial governments, the federal government must take some kind of lead on overseeing IT education in schools across the country.
One participant suggested every school in the country have a “digital advocate,” a member of staff whose only responsibility is to coordinate IT resources and training.
Others noted that any education program must be socially inclusive, recognizing that certain parts of the population are being inadvertently excluded from the digital economy. Efforts should be made to breakdown gender bias to encourage the full and inclusive participation of women. This includes moving away from public campaigns that seek only to scare kids, disproportionately girls, away from the Internet, by overemphasizing cyberbullying and personal safety.
If parents are fearful, they’re not going to teach their kids to code.
iv “K-Net is a unique First Nations owned & operated ICT Service Provider leading the way for rural and remote First Nations of Ontario into the ever growing world of information communication technologies. Based out of Sioux Lookout, Ontario, K-Net materializes a wide range of capacity building services visualized by First Nations; such as cellular service, broadband connectivity, and online applications.” http://knet.ca/