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Digital World

Advancing Canada’s Digital Society

Dillan Theckedath, Terry Thomas

Issue | Canada needs to improve wireless and broadband access, penetration and use to compete in the global digital economy.

Synopsis | Recent advances in digital technologies are changing education, medicine, government services, commerce, entertainment and business practices. Improved access to broadband Internet could provide numerous social and economic benefits for Canadians, and may allow Canada to regain its position as a leader in the global digital economy.

Timing | Although Canada does not have a national digital strategy, public consultations for developing a federal strategy were held in 2010.

Information and communications technology is reshaping economies and societies around the globe. Recent advances in digital technologies, especially increased Internet speed and capabilities, are changing education, medicine, government services, commerce, entertainment and business practices.

Canadian Digital Landscape

Until recently, Canada was a world leader in telecommunications. Several recent international studies now suggest that Canadians cannot obtain the same speed and service for broadband Internet as subscribers in other developed countries, and they pay higher average monthly subscription prices.1 The combination of higher price and lower-quality service has led to relatively low penetration rates (the percentage of households with broadband Internet subscriptions), compared with those in other developed countries. In 2009, though broadband was available to 95% of Canadian households, only 62% subscribed to it.2

In rural and isolated regions, highspeed Internet is not always available or affordable, creating a “digital divide” between rural and urban Canada (see figure). Eliminating this digital divide is important for domestic equity, and it would allow more Canadians to take part in the domestic and international digital economy.

Broadband Availability in Canada: Urban Versus Rural, 2009
The graph uses bars to compare the percentage of urban and rural households with broadband availability in 2009. The percentage for urban households across Canada is 100%. The average for rural households is 84%, and this varies from 55% in the North and 65% in Newfoundland and Labrador to 100% in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.
Source: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using data from Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, Communications Monitoring Report, July 2010.

Government infrastructure programs have helped bridge this gulf, as have technological advances in the wireless and satellite delivery of broadband.

Digital Economy and Innovation

A faster, more accessible and competitive digital network could provide significant social and economic benefits for Canadians. Tapping recent advances in information and communications technology could help make Canadian companies more innovative, which would help address Canada’s perennial problem of relatively low productivity.3

Canada has world-class researchers in academia, government and the private sector. Yet compared with the performance of other countries, Canada’s ability to convert scientific research into commercial success continues to pose a challenge.4 Some Canadian companies do succeed – for example, Research In Motion; MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates; and DragonWave are internationally recognized for having leveraged advances in information and communications technology to become global powerhouses.

National Digital Plans

Over 20 countries have national digital plans. Estonia, now a world leader in e-government, issued its national plan in 1998. France had a national digital plan in 2008, and the United Kingdom in 2009. The United States presented its national broadband plan in 2010. Although Canada does not have a national digital strategy, public consultations for developing a federal strategy were held in 2010.

The national plans in place differ in detail but share a number of common elements, including a general pledge for universal broadband access, goals for broadband speed, and recognition of the need for digital literacy. Almost all of the plans announce the nation’s desire to take a leadership position in the digital economy. The differences among the plans are country-specific, involving geography and population distribution, as well as attitudes toward digital security, intellectual property rights and promotion of national cultural content.

Several groups have argued that the federal government should take a leading role in a digital society and become an active model for Canadians in the use of digital technology. Provincial and territorial governments also have important roles to play in shaping Canada’s digital society, particularly as digital technology increasingly enters areas for which they are responsible, such as the delivery of health services and education.

Through various funding efforts, all levels of government in Canada have shown the importance they place on improving Canadians’ access to broadband. This expansion may allow Canadians to reap fully the benefits of a 21st century digital society, and it could help Canada to regain its position as a global telecommunications leader.

Further Reading

  • Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. Communications Monitoring Report. Ottawa, July 2010.
  • Dewing, Michael, and Marion Ménard. “The Broadcasting Landscape in Canada.” In Current and Emerging Issues for the 41st Parliament. Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 2011.
  • Senate, Standing Committee on Transport and Communications. Plan for a Digital, June 2010.
  1. Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, Next Generation Connectivity: A Review of Broadband Internet Transitions and Policy from around the World, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., February 2010 (see the Center’s website); and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, “Average broadband monthly subscription price, by country, USD PPP,” OECD Broadband Portal, October 2009 (see the OECD website). According to OECD data, Canada ranks 22nd out of 30 countries in average monthly subscription price for broadband access.
  2. Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, Communications Monitoring Report, Ottawa, July 2010 (see the Commission’s website).
  3. Competition Policy Review Panel, Compete to Win: Final Report – June 2008, 2008, p. 18 (see the Panel’s website).
  4. Science, Technology and Innovation Council, State of the Nation 2008: Canada’s Science, Technology and Innovation System, 2009, p. 2 (see the Council’s website).

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© Library of Parliament 2011