Canada doesn’t give a damn about broadband

SASKATOON (CUP) – A global study of Internet service shows Canada is falling behind in terms of broadband quality and may not be able to keep up with future needs.

The University of Oviedo in Spain and the Said Business School at Oxford University studied millions of user records to reach their conclusions, placing Canada 30th in terms of broadband quality.

Canadian broadband quality slipped from 26th in 2008 to its current ranking. Broadband Internet service is considered as anything faster than 56 kilobits per second dial-up service.

Canada also placed 30th for download speed, 31st for upload speed and 17th for “broadband leadership,” meaning total access and broadband quality.

Alec Couros, professor of educational technology and media at the University of Regina, says Canada’s lacklustre showing is partly due to the “connectivist agenda” of the 1990s.

“I think the metric they started out with was connecting every school, connecting all over the nation and worrying less about the actual delivery of data over those networks,” said Couros.

Today, Canada’s broadband infrastructure is able to handle tasks such as social networking, basic video chat and small file sharing adequately. But as high-definition video and large file sharing become more popular in the next three to five years, the system will fall behind, according to the broadband study.

Particularly with media companies embracing social networking and other new technologies, the demands on the system are likely to continue growing.

Couros has harnessed the power of the web to keep in touch with colleagues and students alike, for both private and professional purposes. He points to Oprah Winfrey using Skype to interview guests on her show as an example of how pervasive social media has become.

“While I don’t really care what Oprah is doing,” said Couros, “it actually helps my job as a professor because all my students now know what Skype is.”

The top broadband leaders are Sweden, Japan and South Korea, where governments have put strong emphasis on updating and extending their Internet systems.

The study finds a strong correlation between broadband quality and “a nation’s advancement as a knowledge economy” – investing in technology and Internet infrastructure has real economic impact.

But another aspect of falling behind in broadband quality is its social impact. For Couros, the educational and political uses of the Internet are far more important. He says governments should focus on net neutrality – keeping the Internet accessible to users without blocking sites or restricting activity – and broadband quality.

“The net has to be neutral and it has to be powerful and we have to be connected,” he said. “It’s going to change what it means to have a voice in society.”

One of the challenges facing many countries is an urban-rural split, in which urban centres enjoy much faster and more reliable Internet service.

Mar í a Rosal í a Vicente, professor at the University of Oviedo, said in a press release that this quality divide “could indicate how future divides in wealth may take shape, as broadband is increasingly determining the ability of individuals, firms and nations to create future prosperity.”

Canadian Internet service is further hindered by a lack of competition. In most areas of the country, there are only two service providers to choose from. Similar conditions exist in the mobile phone market.

Michael Geist, professor at the University of Ottawa and Canada Research Chair in Internet and e-commerce law, has been a frequent critic of Canadian Internet policy. Earlier this year, he told the Senate communications committee that “the Canadian telecommunications scene is in a state of crisis.”

“Following years of neglect by successive governments, the absence of a forward-looking digital agenda, and cozy, uncompetitive environment, we now find ourselves steadily slipping in the rankings just as these issues gain even more importance for commercial, educational and community purposes,” said Geist on his website, michaelgeist.ca.

Geist’s assertion has been backed up by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an international trade and policy organization of which Canada is a member.

A 2008 OECD report found that Canada’s lead in broadband technology has eroded over the last decade. Countries like Japan and South Korea are already moving toward superfast fibre networks while Canada is still mostly on cable or phone lines.

There are some initiatives being taken in Canada to move towards faster broadband service, however. Saint John and Fredericton, NB are gearing up to become the first Canadian cities to be completely connected to a fibre optic broadband network. The $60 million project, which will provide customers with the highest bandwidth capacity to send and receive data, is being undertaken by Bell Aliant and is slated to be complete by mid-2010.

“Being connected is not enough,” said Couros. “Being powerfully connected is more important.”

Couros stressed the need to be connected to new technology, comparing it to public utilities or Canada’s health care system, in which everyone shares the costs.

“I’m willing to pay for other people to be connected. And it becomes an issue just as rich and as important as health care,” he said.

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