Internet connectivity is as crucial to our social and economic well-being as other critical infrastructure like good roads, clean water, and electricity. So why aren’t we taking the same lessons we’ve learned from planning intricate, interconnected infrastructure systems and applying them to the next wave of critical infrastructure: broadband?
Stephen Blum, a broadband development consultant from California, addressed this question in recent comments to the California state assembly’s select committee on the digital divide, which he also published on his person website. Blum gave the perfect analogy for why a lack of coordination and arbitrary silos between what gets funded in terms of investments in broadband infrastructure initiatives is deepening the digital divide and creating unnecessary challenges when it comes to ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to access high speed connectivity:
“It’s as if schools built roads for school buses. What we’d get under the same rules are eight lane freeways leading to schools, while everyone else drives on gravel roads. And only school buses could use those freeways, unless someone else pays to put in extra lanes.”
Silo-ed thinking has also created confusion and huge variations in standards and definitions of what constitutes “high speed.” Here in Canada, broadband service has been defined by the federal government as service that provides speeds of 1.5 Mbps or greater. the Connecting Canadians project set a target of increasing internet speeds to 5 Mbps for rural areas and 3 to 5 Mbps in areas covered by the northern component of the program. However, 5 Mbps is a fifth of the service level that the American FCC says is the minimum required by people living in urban areas (25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up) – and pales in comparison to the over 300 Mbps service people living in South Korea can get on their mobile devices or the gigabit service that the residents of Olds, Alberta receive from their municipally owned service. In a critique of this standard, published by Vice last spring, Christopher Malmo put it (rather bluntly), “If 5 Mbps is the best we can reliably offer to Canadians by 2019, we’d better get ready for some less-than-world-leading economic outcomes.”
Further, current plans to connect our country – even if they are achieved – will still leave 700,000 Canadians behind, most likely those living in rural or remote communities who have the most to gain by being connecting and who will be disproportionately and most negatively affected by not receiving even a minimal level of connectivity.
It’s impossible to imagine this kind of situation happening with regard to modern investments in roads or other critical infrastructure – so why should it happen when it comes to building the networks that our schools, hospitals, governments, businesses, and residents rely on for everything from how they keep in touch with family to how they access health-care or education? Never mind the fact that investing in reliable, affordable, ultra-high speed connectivity means our communities could address congestion and transportation issues on actual roadways by creating virtual networks that would reduce the need to physically travel and produce a smaller carbon footprint for certain activities.
This is why SWIFT matters to Southwestern Ontario and our entire region. Without truly innovative and collaborative infrastructure initiatives like SWIFT, coverage and capacity gaps in in our regional network infrastructure are likely to remain unaddressed. To quote Dr. Reza Rajabiun’s third-party review of our model, SWIFT offers “an innovative, realistic, and strong business model for ensuring that Western Ontario can catch up, and potentially surpass, urban Canada in broadband infrastructure quality and affordability.”
Canadians need and deserve a holistically planned and built high-speed broadband infrastructure network. Let’s stop making them drive on the digital equivalent of one-way gravel roads.