Science Minister: Canada is a broadband role model

If you’re going to talk about the need for broadband access from a remote location, you might as well choose a warm one.

As the 25th annual conference of the Pacific Telecommunication Council gets under way in Honolulu, federal science minister Rey Pagtakhan particiated in the opening plenary

session, called “”The promise and challenge of broadband.””

Pagtakhan, the Minister of Veteran’s Affairs who took over the Secretary of State for Science, Research and Development last May, says he believes in both the promises and the challenges. As a medical doctor with ties to Manitoba’s health care system, he sees telemedicine as one of the applications that broadband could deliver to small communities, which are defined as those with a population of less than 10,000.

Pagtakhan spent a few minutes talking about his agenda at the conference with Communications & Networking via telephone Monday morning.

Communications & Networking: What was the most important thing you wanted to impart to the other delegates at the conference?

RP: The key message I wanted to leave is to truly indicate what is this promise of the broadband. The challenge is how we — in other words, we the collective economies of the world, bridge with speed the digital divide that exists.

CN: When you talked with your peers at the conference, what was your impression of Canada’s progress on broadband relative to other parts of the world?

RP: There was no real sort of comparison that was attempted, but after the presentation, a couple of guys from the U.K. that indicated to me, in fact, how they’re very much engaged in community programs and that they had used the Canadian model. In that instance, I was assured that our programs have served as models for other nations. Not only developing nations but developed nations. So we’re on the right track.

The chairman of the conference did ask how we in Canada hope to address this digital divide in some more specific terms. I indicated that we have launched this rural and northern pilot project worth $105 million within three years and had invited communities around the country to submit proposals. You’ll want to watch that, because anytime before the end of this month, we will be making announcements on the successful applicants. The program has challenged communities themselves to play a leadership role in choosing what they feel to be connected through broadband.

The government will be technologically neutral: we are not about to choose which kind of technology a community would choose. We would leave that to the private sector. Now, the government has acknowledged that leaving it to the private sector and the market forces may leave some remote and rural communities unserved. We feel that by this approach, we will have encouraged the remote communities, and then at the end we will decide to make a one-time capital investment in these projects. The idea, then, is to give a motivational seed, if I can call it that.

CN: What do you say to industry analysts that suggest Bell, Telus and other carriers won’t want to invest in remote areas where they can’t make any money?

RP: That’s one of the concerns that were raised. The way that I would answer that is to say when we let the communities think about the whole premise of broadband, they will then be challenged to think of the applications that broadband will bear upon the communities. The applications that they see — and as we know in Canada — encompass a broad spectrum of possibilities. These include how we convert the relationship between citizens and government, how we really improve and conduct our trade and business, and how we enhance our cultural institutions, our knowledge of the country and geography, our knowledge of people. The social and economic dimensions will probably encompass the applications for education and health. I envision that by the year 2005, we will at least have advanced our telemedicine and tele-education. That would have a very significant bearing on how we as a society would have taken into hand how (we provide service to) our First Nations people, as well as people who live in the rural areas, and deliver to them at affordable costs.

CN: We’ve seen some broadband successes where Bell Nexxia has worked with Alberta to increase remote access. To what extent are more private-public partnerships necessary to achieve your goals?

RP: I think they will definitely exist. With the Smart program, we have succeeded in interesting provincial and territorial government. I think all levels of government have recognized the real premise of this. The awareness is there, the interest is there, and I think the determination to proceed. They see the broad premise of broadband in all sectors: government, private, as well as the communities at large, engaged.

CN: The National Broadband Task Force made a number of recommendations that haven’t been followed. Is that due to the changes at Industry Canada over the last few years?

RP: It was because of the unforseen circumstances that intervened, including Sept. 11. But at the same time, in response, the rural and northern public project proceeded. Following the innovation strategy summit in Toronto last November, I can envision –short of knowing exactly what will be coming in the budget next month — a likely clear commitment in terms of resources to the idea of advance the Broadband Task Force in its many dimensions, including as they relate to innovation.

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