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Connecting the hinterland

Back in 2000, former Industry Minister Brian Tobin introduced an ambitious billion-dollar plan to wire Canada from coast to coast to coast with high-speed, broadband Internet – most likely a strong fibre optic backbone that is supported by digit

Back in 2000, former Industry Minister Brian Tobin introduced an ambitious billion-dollar plan to wire Canada from coast to coast to coast with high-speed, broadband Internet – most likely a strong fibre optic backbone that is supported by digital satellite and digital microwave towers in more isolated regions.

The program was to be included in the 2001 budget, but when former Finance Minister Paul Martin announced the particulars, the program barely received a mention. There was no funding and no plan to keep the project on the backburner.

Health Care, Allan Rock’s portfolio, was the pressing concern of the day and as a result it received the most funding.

For rural Canadians, a really good idea was effectively shelved. At least for little while.

At the time, all three politicians mentioned were in contention to succeed Jean Chrétien as the leader of the Liberal Party, and were actively campaigning and building their war chests. As a result, the budget was highly politicized, and cabinet minister went to war to ensure that their programs received all the funding – and publicity.

As it happened, Paul Martin quit cabinet in a huff after butting heads with Chrétien one too many times, and is currently running his leadership campaign outside of the central party.

Tobin quit the government last summer, retiring from politics with a bad taste in his mouth. He is now a newspaper columnist, taking pot shots at the current administration from a safe distance.

Rock remained in cabinet, and recently announced he was no longer considering a run for the top job. There was also a shuffle, and Rock took over the Industry portfolio. Ironically, he is now sponsoring a watered-down version of Tobin’s broadband project.

In September, Rock announced $105 million in seed money for the Broadband Rural and Northern Development Pilot Program.

On Jan. 24, Rock and Natural Resources Minister Herb Dhaliwal announced $459,000 for the broadband project in B.C. Sixteen organizations representing 208 under-served communities received up to $30,000 each to develop business plans outlining how broadband service could be implemented in those communities.

Similar programs have been announced in every province and territory, suggesting that a national broadband network is in fact on the way – with a little private sector funding. The government supports the idea that the private sector, which owns most of the Internet network and stands to benefit from a national broadband service, should pay a share of the set-up costs.

Tobin understood that the best way to approach this issue is to tackle the issue is in one swoop, doing it right the first time. Also, if Canada builds the network, the government can ensure that it arrives in remote communities with no strings attached for a reasonable fee.

Why is this project so important?

First of all, Canada is the second largest country in the world, and aside from a few large urban areas concentrated along the American border, the vast majority of it is sparsely populated.

The geographic realities of Canada have resulted in a digital divide. While urban areas are well-served, rural Canada and especially the north have either limited or non-existent Internet access. That affects everything from education to health care to government services – the basics that all Canadians have a right to.

In the words of Tobin, "(The Internet) is the most pervasive technology we have seen in several decades – so pervasive in nature that it’s transforming all areas of life, including how we conduct business and trade, deliver health care and education, as well as how we govern. It is central to development in all its dimensions – the means for economic modernization as well as a vehicle for social, cultural and civic enrichment. Secondly, the Internet offers easy access to a vast array of knowledge which, in turn, is a fundamental prerequisite to modern human development. Knowledge is a strategic asset and an invaluable source of empowerment whether judged in social, political or economic terms."

To paraphrase, there can be no development or equality among Canadians until we have equal access to the Internet. It’s become an inalienable right in our digital age.

The plan to develop broadband in B.C. was hailed by Dhaliwal as a major step in bridging the digital divide. "In no small part through the partnerships being developed under this initiative, the digital divide will disappear, and First Nations, rural and northern communities will have access to education, health, business and government services, along with increased opportunity to grow their businesses and innovate."

One of the major problems for the remote areas has been the availability and quality of medical care. The Web could make a significant contribution, as doctors and patients routinely access the Internet for information and guidance. Plans are currently in the works to create online medical files for Canadians that can be accessed from anywhere at any time.

In addition, the Internet has become an essential training tool in the profession. Doctors can use high-speed Internet connections to watch live surgeries using new techniques and equipment. As professionals that have to continually update their knowledge and skills; the Internet also provides an alternative to doctors who work in remote locations.

Doctors envision a day in the not-to-distant future when surgeons in the operating room will be able to access a patients’ medical files, X-rays, and vital statistics on one screen. Using two-way video conferencing technology, they will be able to talk to medical experts around the country for assistance and advice, even while in the middle of an operation.

To advance education, the Internet provides free and equal access to a massive collection of learning materials, compensating for small and poorly funded libraries and labs. Students can research reports, and even take courses that may not be available locally.

Canada is also playing catch-up in the high-technology sector, often having to import experts to solve problems. The Internet breeds technology-minded people, and provides a tool to help rural companies and communities to innovate and solve problems.

The Internet is also an important government tool, allowing Canadians to apply for services, assistance, and programs online, as well as pay taxes, research laws and regulations, access vital government information such as statistics and weather reports.

For more information, visit the federal government’s Broadband for Rural and Northern Development site at