Digital Canada 150: Canada’s digital “strategy”

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Today James Moore, the Minister of Industry, released the long-awaited digital economy strategy. As you will likely recall, in the summer of 2010, the federal government embarked on a consultation with Canadians about Canada’s digital future. In our submission to the consultation (.PDF), we made 19 recommendations to the government that we believed would help build a strong Canadian digital economy. Digital Canada 150 (.PDF), the strategy launched today, is grouped under five main thematic areas:

  1. Connecting Canadians
  2. Protecting Canadians
  3. Economic Opportunities
  4. Digital Government
  5. Canadian Content

There is some good content in Digital Canada 150. In particular, I was pleased to see that the government is committed to expanding broadband access in Canada to 98 per cent. While the target speed goal, five megabits per second, is not exactly ambitious, this will remedy the digital divide we reported in the .CA Factbook a couple of weeks ago. While broadband is available to 100 per cent of urban Canadians, only 85 per cent of Canadians in rural and remote areas have access. This divide is even more pronounced in the Canadian North, so I commend the government on this initiative.

In our submission, we called on the government to develop a strategy to deal with online threats and security issues, and invest in technologies that safeguard online transactions. We also called on the government to work to build trust and confidence in the Internet, online transactions and the digital economy. It appears that Digital Canada 150 delivers on this recommendation, as it states that the government will “take action so that the communications networks and devices that connect Canadians will be secure from threats, protecting the privacy of Canadian families, businesses and governments.” As the head of an organization that works at the very heart of the Internet in Canada, I would like to offer our support to make this happen.

I also find the commitment of $200 million from the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) to support small and medium sized businesses with digital technology adoption promising. Unfortunately, this sector has been slow to adopt technologies like the Internet. While Canadians are among the heaviest users of the Internet in the world, only 41 per cent of Canadian small businesses have a website. I’m hopeful that this number will increase with the support of the BDC.

However, there are a number of areas where the strategy comes up short. Putting aside the recommendations we made in our submission to the consultation, I am most disappointed with what Digital Canada 150 doesn’t do.

Building a strong national digital economy is not easy. It takes collaboration with a wide variety of actors, including governments, the private sector, NGOs, and academia to address the issues in a robust manner. I believe it is the role of the federal government to take on a leadership position in this work by first developing a vision toward which all actors can concentrate their efforts – a common goal. I don’t see this in Digital Canada 150; what I see is a list of activities in the digital sphere. Individually, many of them are important to build a strong digital economy. However, without a cohesive vision to guide the work of the many stakeholders toward a common goal, I’m afraid I have to say that Digital Canada 150 comes up short as a digital economy strategy.

Yes, there are challenges in a country like Canada – from our relatively small population and vast geography to our proximity to the United States and its influence, we are unique in the world. However, as Minister Moore pointed out in his speech today by referencing the building of the railway, we have been able to overcome these obstacles before in an effort to build our nation. However, we only need to look to other nations to see what can happen when a true digital strategy is enacted.

In 2000, Sweden had an Internet penetration rate of 45.5 per cent. As of 2010, that number has risen to 92.5 per cent, the result of a concerted effort on the part of the Swedish government that included a robust digital strategy. In 2006, South Korea was the first country in the world to achieve an Internet penetration rate over 50 per cent, yet only six years earlier their rate was a meager 15 per cent. Today, they have one of the highest Internet penetration rates in the world. Again, this is the result of a broad and robust digital strategy.

In 2000, Canada was a digital leader, ranking at the top of almost every indicator by which one would measure a digital economy. In my business, a critical measure of success of a nation’s digital economy is a mix of broadband speed and price. Broadband speed and price are a nation’s ‘digital currency’, making it a more attractive place for start-ups and investment. On that measure, Canada now ranks in the bottom third compared to its OECD counterparts, 19th out of 34.  Sweden and South Korea, on the other hand, have been in the top five for years now. Furthermore, we now rank 16th globally for Internet penetration, a measure we once dominated.

The digital economy, and Canada’s digital future, is too important to be left to a series of activities that may or may not relate to one another. We have seen time and time again what happens when leaders get too focussed on day-to-day activities instead of focussing on a strategic direction. Some of Canada’s best and brightest companies fell victim to it – think Blackberry or Nortel. Canadians are an innovative people. We built a nation out of one of the largest and most unforgiving lands in the world by building a railroad. We can do the same in the digital world.

Do you have any thoughts about Digital Canada 150? Please let me know in the comments.

 

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  • bobledrew

    As an Ottawa trainer and consultant, I was paritcularly disappointed with the digital government chapter. I recently blogged about why so many government social media initiatives are failures, and I see nothing in this document that suggests that the federal government’s approach to social media will be ay less ignorant of the potential for communication in the future than it has been to this point. Here’s my blog post, if anyone’s interested: http://bit.ly/1iTr5y3

  • John King

    While 5MBps broadband is a very weak target for 2017, 5MBps upload
    speeds would represent significant progress for many who are already
    paying for the highest speed available to them. The default thinking is always on the download side of the speed equation. Yes we need ubiquitous broadband to stream our Olympics and movies and music and have access to other avenues of consumer activity.

    We too often overlook the upload speeds that are required to *produce* content, commercial activity and economic growth. Too many service areas have an upload speed that’s less than 10% of the download speed, e.g. 6 MBps download and 0.5 MBps upload. Economic growth requires bandwidth in both directions. A search of the Digital Canada 150 document using the term “upload” or “duplex” shows no mention of either word.

    Sadly, I see very little in this report that’s different from the work
    done by the Information Highway Advisory Council in 1994, a full 20
    years ago. Given the rear-view mirror vision of Digital Canada 150, it’s no surprise that the Great Canadian Railroad analogy is also a re-tread from John Manley speeches in the 1990s.