Toronto debates its wired future

TORONTO — Though governments and access providers are both itching to see a fully wired Canada, they remain at odds over who should take the initiative to make it happen.

At a roundtable forum hosted Wednesday by Smart Toronto, an organization dedicated to promoting technological development in the city, the difference in viewpoints expressed by access providers and municipalities illustrated why some communities remain hooked on dial-up.

The access providers, represented by Bell Canada and Rogers Communications Inc. said governments need to take an active role in driving adoption of broadband access. Ken Engelhart, Rogers’ regulatory vice-president, said municipalities putting their services, such as license and permit applications, online will encourage adoption.

Paul Howarth, Bell’s Ontario public sector assistant vice-president, said municipalities need to present a solid business case to access providers before providers will wire their communities. “Customers build networks; networks don’t build customers,” Howarth said, pointing to bankruptcies over the past year and-a-half of smaller competitors to Bell and Rogers. “I can assure you that we’re in every community where I have customers.”

But David Ballam, investment and client development officer for the Oakville (Ont.) Economic Development Alliance said business in his region is clamoring for high-speed service. As well, he said, if businesses build the networks, then people will come.

“It’s the chicken and the egg that we’re talking about,” Howarth said. “I think government has to play a role in certain communities.”

Howarth was not the only panelist to extol the importance of government in wiring the Toronto region and Canada. Luigi Ferrara, president of DXNet and vice-president of programs and services for the Design Exchange, said governments in Canada need to invest in the information highway as they have the asphalt highways that connect the country.

He said trips to Italy in his youth revealed the country to be well behind Canada technologically, but that has changed recently.

“I’ve been going back to Italy now for the past four years and I’m finding Italy is more modern than Canada. I’m finding Korea is surpassing Canada,” even in the telecommunications and digital areas. He said governments in Korea and Singapore have done more to spur innovation than those in Canada, and said that along with government funding, he wants to see more synergy between government and private industry in efforts to wire Toronto and Canada.

Indeed, access providers and governments are divided by issues beyond infrastructure investment. Susan Chase, IT manager for the Town of Newmarket mentioned the costs to municipalities of putting their services online. Howarth said there was concern among access providers about working too closely with municipalities, as municipalities are not only customers of access providers but, as the owners of utilities, potential competitors.

Despite these obstacles, Toronto and Canada are ahead of almost everyone is the world in terms of broadband access with somewhere near 70 per cent of Canadians able to receive high-speed connections, according to Engelhart. Engelhart and Howarth said they anticipate broadband will be available to up to 85 per cent of Canadians by 2004. Of the 15 per cent that will remain, Engelhart said two-thirds are probably too far from the backbone to ever receive high-speed access.

Christine Raissis, director of economic research and business information for the City of Toronto, questioned subsidizing high-speed access in rural areas when the investment can provide greater return if made in areas of Toronto that have subway lines and streetcar line but still no high speed access.

“If you just start putting it everywhere, you can’t make any money,” she said, noting that investment in Toronto is smart for other regions as 96 cents of every dollar generated in the city goes to the federal and provincial governments.

She also said the city is doing a poor job of publicizing itself as a wired city and a centre of innovation. Members of the panel and audience agreed that Toronto is lacking in identity and suggested the city develop a portal as part of a branding campaign. Members of the audience also suggested that portal could include locally-produced content, generated by Toronto medical facilities for example, that could be exported worldwide.

Content appeared to be king among the panel and audience as a means of pitching the city and speeding adoption of broadband. When asked how content could make money post-Napster, Howarth suggested bumping up an additional stream with sales of existing products. For example, hockey merchandise could be offered for sale in a corner of the screen during a National Hockey League Game.

Mitzie Hunter, president of Smart Toronto, added 240,000 users paid US$49 for membership to Electronic Arts Inc. gaming site and continue to pay a US$10 per month subscription fee.

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