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Policy Matters: Are we going to be a generation of broadband laggards?

Why can’t Canada catch up with the US on broadband policy?

Andrey Prokhorov (iStockphoto)

The slow train a’ coming of a Broadband Plan for digital delivery of content—business, communication and entertainment—finally started to gather steam early this year. Well, in America it did. As part of the 2009 Recovery and Reinvestment Act, President Obama created a Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program under which the Federal Communications Commission [FCC] has one year to deliver a national broadband plan to the relevant House and Senate committees. According to the FCC’s interim report in September:

The plan will provide concrete recommendations on how to successfully deliver on the infrastructure challenge of our time: provision and adoption of universal broadband.
—www.broadband.gov

Rarely am I resentful of what the US has and we don’t. In Canada we continue to be enslaved by the CRTC’s inattention to the cablecos and BDU’s [Broadcast Distribution undertakings] escalating fees, unregulated profits, net-throttling and traffic-shaping of online content, not to mention the effrontery of Industry Canada’s behind-closed-doors approach to broadband development. While in America, the FCC is busy convening workshops involving everyone from MIT and Silicon Valley geniuses to Hollywood producers and consumer advocates, as they try to determine what kind of capacity, investment, ownership model, and time frame will be needed for the full deployment of a national broadband plan. The estimated price tag? 7.2 billion. By October, the FCC’s Chair will have laid the groundwork, much to the chagrin of folks like Comcast, for network neutrality, codifying Internet principles that Canadians can only dream about.

Based on the CRTC’s own digital hearings this winter/spring, it’s clear that our historic impediment to progress remains the same: the wide gatekeeping power of the cableco/BDU oligopoly. But Cancon too, brings some serious baggage. According to media futures author, David Ellis (whose blog has been essential to my reading:

New media Cancon is a contradiction in terms. When the notice was issued last October for the [CRTC’s proceeding], it was immediately evident this wasn’t going to be a “new media proceeding,” as everyone called it. It was a proceeding about … how the broadcasting industry could be spared the ravages of that disruptive technology called the Internet.

For Ellis, “trying to control what happens on this intensely personal, open platform will help no one. What we need is a whole lot of letting go, not more reining in”.

We’re in a highly problematic policy mindset right now that has us focused on the wrong things. Instead of looking at content, we should be demanding intense investment on the infrastructure and revenue model challenges that lie ahead—free of the cable/ wireless provider ISPs calling the access shots. Ellis calls us a “broadband banana republic” precisely because the CRTC and Industry Canada not only permit the ISPs to shape and control traffic, but because they have thus far ignored the need for public/private investment in the fibre pipe we’ll have to have in order to be on a level playing field with savvier nations like Norway, Japan, Korea and even Turkey.

Thankfully, when the Commission released its June report on New Media, it endorsed NFB’s Tom Perlmutter’s February 2009 intervention. In it, Perlmutter openly cribbed from the FCC’s work and called for a national broadband panel, now! Like Ellis, he doesn’t think regulation is possible, but as someone primarily concerned with content, he’s optimistic Canadian production will flourish in the right conditions. I leave you with his concluding recommendations, at the URL listed below.

We need to ensure that the infrastructure meets the needs of today and tomorrow—which means advanced digital networks, broadband and wireless. We need to cross digital divides between the digital haves and have-nots. We need to ensure broad-based digital literacy. We need rich Canadian content that is both multi-platform and cross-platform, and we need unique creations for specific platforms. We desperately need training for new modes of production. We need to evolve our business and financing models. We need to figure out how to create international digital co-production partnerships. We need to work at building strong digital brands that will capture the imagination of our audiences.

Most of all, we need a vision.

I strongly urge the forming of a national digital panel, one that will bring together leading players from all sectors to begin to think through the long-term issues related to the development of a strong digital Canada.

Amen to that.

Barri Cohen is an award-winning independent producer, documentary filmmaker and writer. She is in development with the Documentary Channel on her next film with White Pine Pictures in Toronto.

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