Broadband loses out and that's a good thing

Globe and Mail Update
Monday, December 10 – Online Edition, Posted at 4:31 PM EST

Should we be thankful when a budget isn't quite as bad as it might have been? If so, then the latest Liberal budget fits into that damning-with-faint-praise category in several different areas. Perhaps that was part of the plan all along: Run a pile of expensive programs up the flagpole, watch them get riddled with bullets, then haul them down and take a few zeros off. That appears to be what has happened to the multibillion-dollar "broadband for everyone" programs that Brian Tobin helped to champion.

The original plan proposed spending about $4-billion to provide a so-called "digital dial tone" for rural residents across Canada. Mr. Tobin and others said that high-speed Internet access was as indispensable as a phone line perhaps more so. "We must ensure that all Canadian communities, no matter where they are, can reap the benefits of broadband Internet services," the minister said, calling high-speed Internet access "the transcontinental railway of the new millennium" that would remove the "digital divide" separating rural Canadians from those in urban centres.

This all sounded wonderful last year, when everyone was under the impression that the slowdown in the technology sector was just a momentary blip in the implacable progress of the New Economy, and that everyone had an inalienable right to high-speed Internet access, right up there with clean water, a high-school education and affordable health care. At this point, however, much of that earlier thinking now looks more than a little empty almost as empty as the federal government's coffers are.

After the events of Sept. 11, the Canadian government has become obsessed with "fiscal stimulus" packages and spending on security protection measures. The kind of gee-whiz projects that seemed like a good idea when Canada was running big surpluses now look a bit questionable, and for that taxpayers should be glad. Broadband for everyone has turned into a broad (and vague) "innovation agenda" with $110-million to help build a kind of super-Internet for schools, universities and medical researchers.

According to some Ottawa insiders, Mr. Tobin was sideswiped by fellow Liberal leadership hopeful Paul Martin, with the Finance Minister playing the fiscally responsible elder statesman, poo-poohing the Industry Minister's desire to spend billions on Internet toys. The more Mr. Tobin clung to the idea when every other politician was trying to be an anthrax expert the worse it looked. Combined with the dot-com death spiral in Silicon Valley, that pretty well torpedoed the whole idea for many.

Earlier this year, Mr. Tobin said providing high-speed Internet access to all Canadians which experts said could cost $10-billion was a "cornerstone" of the Liberals' industrial policy. "I think it's going to transform many parts of this country where bright, motivated people have goods and services to offer but can't play because they don't have high-speed access," he said. People who live in the various urban centres in Canada take their high-speed Internet access for granted, the minister said, but most rural residents are deprived of this essential aspect of their lives.

There's one problem with this argument, of course, which is that high-speed Internet access is not even close to being an essential part of life. Internet access, high- or low-speed, is far from indispensable. It's certainly nice to have, since information on a range of topics is a lot more accessible and it can speed up all sorts of transactions with government departments or private agencies. High-speed access can speed these things up even more but none of that makes having it indispensable.

As for the argument that rural residents not having access to broadband creates some kind of inequity, that doesn't really hold water either. For one thing, residents of rural areas have all sorts of benefits that urban residents don't (cleaner air, less traffic, free relationship advice from the woman at the post office, etc.). If companies or individuals feel that Internet access is indispensable, they should move to somewhere that offers it, or pay what's required to have it where they live.

There's no question that a high-speed Internet connection would make sense for remote hospitals, so x-rays and other files could be sent for consultation, or for schools to obtain research material. But those are far more specific uses of broadband access than Mr. Tobin appeared to have in mind, and so Canadian taxpayers can be thankful the idea was effectively nipped in the bud even if the money is being spent on some equally questionable proposals for national security or a "fiscal booster shot."

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