March 19, 2018 10 months 1 week ago

COMMENTARY: $200 million for 5G. Still zero million for those who can’t afford any G

THE SHALLOW BANALITY of the announcement is what’s initially most irksome.

Today’s press release touted the federal government’s involvement in helping fund leading-edge 5G technology development in Ontario and Quebec – something it says is brand new but was actually announced 17 months ago – and the best three levels of government and five leading tech companies can come up with as a lead is:

“Imagine a world where you start off the day right because your refrigerator has tracked how much food you have and ordered replacement items for you. Your commute is safer and more productive because you are in a self-driving car. You can easily navigate traffic in a smart city, tolls are automatically collected and it's easier to find a good parking spot.”

Seriously. That’s it?! That’s the best imaginary scenario to describe the potentially transformative nature of 5G technology? Smart fridges (which already exist) and four ways to improve driving to work in cities, three of which exist already and none of which actually need 5G to work?

Much of the rest of the release is political boilerplate of course – middle class jobs, innovation, connectivity, yada-yada – boasting about the $200 million worth of investment from the federal government, Quebec government and Ontario government and $200 million in total from Ericsson, Ciena, IBM, Thales Canada and CGI.

The official handout quote from ISED Minister Navdeep Bains reads: "Technology is changing the way we live, work and engage with one another, and we are in a global innovation race. To prepare for the future, we must be bold, visionary and decisive. That's why our government is investing in 5G technology. This investment in next-generation wireless technology will help make Canada a global innovation leader and secure 4,000 jobs."

The release also explains a tiny bit more of what 5G will be – and yes, it is going to be pretty cool when rolled out. If you want to compete in the wireless tech space, you must be on the 5G bandwagon now (which of course makes us remember the five companies are already heavily invested in 5G – to the tune of way more than $200 million – so why do we need to kick in $200 million more in taxpayer dollars? But we digress).

"How many don’t have milk in their fridge – or don’t have a fridge, let alone a smart one? "

Anyhow, after taking a few breaths, we went back to the pedestrian opening paragraph and thought about how many Canadians can’t afford any of what was mentioned in those words. How many don’t have milk in their fridge – or don’t have a fridge, let alone a smart one? How many people who live in Canadian cities and don’t worry about parking their self-driving cars because they can’t afford one – and who will never read the news about 5G – or much of any news – because they can’t afford internet access?

And then that made us wonder why three different governments can each find $67 million to help fund something that doesn’t really need additional public help – but none of them can figure out a way to build a program to get broadband access and devices to those who can’t afford them.

The Ontario government shut down and re-opened the legislature this week and its throne speech Monday mentioned broadband not at all. The 2017 federal government budget set aside a pittance ($13.2 million over five years) to try and get an ill-defined portal off the ground to help low income families get online and nothing has happened yet. As near as we can tell, none of the rest of the provinces have any sort of program.

We’ve looked at some of the party platforms and while they sometimes talk about bringing broadband to rural areas (for which there are already hundreds of millions of dollars being deployed and much more in the pipeline), none appear to have plans, or even ideas about, helping low income households afford broadband connectivity – which is needed not for faster movie downloads, but to be able to do homework, do remote work – or even search and apply for jobs.

While both Rogers and Telus have launched their own low cost broadband plans (and seriously, kudos to them for that), we are saddened to recognize governments love headline-grabbing funding announcements like the one today – and for some reason remain myopically fixated on bringing broadband to very few people, very far away. They have nothing at all in their tool kits to help those who have broadband options all around them, but don’t have the means to purchase access.

Let’s be perfectly clear here. The opportunities and advancements afforded by 5G look to be pretty amazing and they need to be pursued – but that will happen regardless of any government spending. As well, broadband has to be delivered to rural and indigenous communities; but this isn’t an either-or scenario.

There must be some funds, and some ideas, on helping the poor in cities – the people likely to most benefit from an internet connection – truly enter the modern digital economy because of course, as noted above, “technology is changing the way we live, work and engage with one another,” but not if there’s no help for low income families to connect.

A program like that, Minister Bains, would be “bold, visionary and decisive.” Heck, it would even be, to use the federal government’s favourite, overused word, innovative.