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 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.

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