Feds urged to give First Nations priority in broadband access

The government’s moves to expand broadband access should focus on communities where the private sector is unlikely to deliver services, the National Broadband Task Force said Monday.

The group also said priority should be given to First Nation, Inuit and remote communities in its report, The New National Dream: Networking the Nation for Broadband access.

“Our recommendations lay out the plans for a project on the scale of a national railroad of a century and a quarter ago, with the same potential impact to transform our economy and our society and reshape the very nature of Canada and how it engages the world,” said task force chair and University of Waterloo president David Johnston.

“We want to see broadband access to be as ubiquitous telephone service is today in Canada with almost 99 per cent penetration.”

The approximately 33 member task force was comprised of people from the private sector (including Lucent Technologies Canada Corp. and Shaw Communications), public sector (various schools) and public interest and Aboriginal groups. Its mandate was to provide a roadmap for the federal government to make high-speed broadband Internet services available to businesses and residents in all Canadian communities by the year 2004. Its mandate did not include recommending a particular technology for the job, according to Johnston.

Connecting public institutions (schools, libraries, and health care centres) is also a priority, according to the report.

The estimated cost of fulfilling the dream is about $4 billion, and the cost would be shared among all levels and government and the private sector. According to the report it will cost between $1.3 and $1.9 billion to connect unserved communities, $900 million to $2 billion to connect businesses and residences, and $500 to $600 million for public institutions.

“While these investments may seem high, they are relatively modest in comparison to investments of other kinds of infrastructure with the comparable benefits,” said Johnston. “One kilometre of road can cost $500,000 while the same distance in fibre optics or wireless technology can be up to 20 times less expensive.”

Completed in five months, the report was delivered Monday morning online to Minister of Industry Brian Tobin from Ottawa to Clarenville, NFLD. He said broadband access is crucial to our economic future.

“There is no disputing that there is a very direct link between innovation, connectivity and economic performance,” said Tobin. “Canada’s global competitiveness depends on ensuring that our Canadian citizens are connected and that they are skilled. Broadband is the transcontinental railway of the new millennium.

“Broadband is far more than ambitious engineering. I see it as a challenge of nation building that will require creative partnerships amongst all levels of government, the private sector and communities themselves.”

To what extent and how soon the recommendations of the report are followed remains to be seen, but Tobin assured task force members the federal government will consider the report and respond with an action plan as quickly as possible.

Tobin would not say exactly how much of the $4 billion price tag the feds would shoulder, citing having only received the report that morning. He did say it was too early to decide on the division of labour, but the government would “have to come to the table.”

The timing of a report recommending country-wide broadband access comes at awkward time given the recent economic downturn and Nortel Networks’ problems.

“Will there be a further expansion of the Internet? The answer is yes. There will be further expansion of the Internet and services, but not as fast as, both in Canada and around the world, as Nortel and others had bet,” said Tobin.

“I’ve got a room full of people right here who want this service available in their communities, and that’s the bed we’re making as a government.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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