Ottawa debates broadband policy

OTTAWA — There was a setback Friday to those expecting Ottawa, one of Canada’s prime technology centres, to move ahead in making high-speed Internet available to all its residents.

Findings from an October workshop sponsored by The Ottawa Partnership (TOP) recommending ways for the nation’s capital to expand its broadband connectivity won’t immediately find their way into a municipal infrastructure policy, as expected.

At a TOP meeting Friday the partnership moved to present its findings to the city council in March, 2002. Until then, it will rest with the the city’s economic council. TOP’s membership is drawn from the city’s academic and business community, and includes Ottawa Mayor Bob Chiarelli and city counselor Michel Bellemare

The report’s key recommendation was to bridge the digital divide between downtown Ottawa and more than 100,000 residents in outlying areas still without high-speed service. Workshop participants felt the City of Ottawa should be implementing broadband to rural areas, fearing the private telecom industry won’t fill these gaps on its own.

“The notion is, if the city has a broadband pipe in place … why can’t that (later) be made available to a third-party service provider for their use?” said Kirk Mandy, vice-chairman of Zarlink Semiconductor and a TOP board member. “The pipes, to a great degree, are already in place. They’re just not being utilized properly.”

He added during the meeting, though, that if broadband isn’t enshrined in the City of Ottawa’s infrastructure policy, high-speed access might never be deployed to communities ringing the city. He even suggested Ottawa was at risk of falling behind other cities, like Chicago and Stockholm, that are considered leaders in providing high-speed Internet access.

He felt the service should become an important part of the city’s infrastructure, like roads and sewer lines, in order to boost the city’s economic base. That, he says, would necessitate a long-term planning strategy.

“There’s no way you’re going to have a broadband network in the next three weeks, it’s not realistic,” said Mandy. “(But) the conclusion we had in the workshop was that we need to think over the long term . . . With effective planning we should be able to put this vision practically in place over the next five to 10 years.”

However, he had no idea how much extra infrastructure would be needed to connect Ottawa’s surrounding communities, and at what cost. This made some members of the 16-person strong group skeptical about trying to fast track the recommendations into policy, especially since Monday’s federal budget saw broadband funding scaled back from $1 billion to $600 million.

Most of the group members, save co-chair Rod Bryden of the World Heart Corporation, felt that it was better to find out how much widespread broadband access would cost taxpayers before asking Ottawa city council to commit to a broadband policy. While Bryden seemed to warm up to that suggestion as the meeting progressed, he warned against allowing the city to take too much time thinking about the subject.

“Being in the city of Ottawa, when you hear of contemplation or deep thought, one expects royal commissions” on the subject, joked Bryden.

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