Public sector involvement in the deployment of broadband is necessary, but only as a complement to the work being done by the private sector. Two civil servants, representing different levels of government, stressed that point at the Smart City Summit in Ottawa at the end of April. Ross MacLeod, director general of the Information Highway Applications Branch of Industry Canada, told delegates that 97% of Canadians believe ICT and the Internet are important to this country’s global competitiveness. Almost three-quarters, 74%, surveyed by Ipsos Reid last October termed it “very important” while another 23% believe it to be “somewhat important.” Only 3% said it was “not very or not at all important.” He repeated familiar figures that Canada is the leader among G-7 nations in percentage of telephony and cable connectivity. He also cited the numbers from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development that show Canada is in second place, behind the Republic of Korea, in high-speed connectivity. Internet connectivity, whether dial-up or high-speed, is increasing, MacLeod reported. But residential high-speed access is growing at a faster rate than dial-up access. While connectivity is high in large urban centres, fully 76% of the country does not have access to high-speed Internet. The federal government has committed $105 million to assist unserved communities. Priority is given to First Nations, northern, rural and remote areas. The government is providing help where the private sector finds it cannot. “We don’t want to be in competition with the incumbents,” MacLeod stressed. “We see places where the private sector won’t go without government assistance.” Similar plans are unfolding in Ontario, David Kennedy, director of the information and communications technologies branch in the science and technology division of the provincial Ministry of Enterprise, Opportunity and Innovation, said in his presentation at the same session. Communities are establishing regionally based, non-profit partnerships to define local and regional broadband needs and to develop infrastructure proposals. Ontario is busy with its connectivity programs in order to remain competitive with other provinces. Currently, the province ranks fourth in connectivity, behind Yukon, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. But it is worried that it will soon be eclipsed by the three prairie provinces, which have all made major investments in infrastructure lately. Of particular note are Alberta’s SuperNet project (NL, Nov. 19/02) and Saskatchewan’s CommunityNet grid (NL, Apr. 9/01). The most populous province has unveiled Connect Ontario: Broadband Regional Access (COBRA), a program that will spend $55 million over three years to provide high-speed telecom services to small communities in northern and rural areas where they do not currently exist. Municipalities or not-for-profit groups must lead the regional partnerships. They may include commercial and private users as part of a broad-based partnership. The types of groups accepted into the program include chambers of commerce, tourism bodies, social service agencies and First Nations groups. Telecom service providers are ineligible, so as to avoid a conflict of interest. “We know different partners want to participate, but they want a fair system,” Kennedy remarked. The partnerships initiate an open, competitive process that results in the selection of private sector telecom service providers in the regions. The provincial government provides funding for hard to serve regions for the business plan development. Depending on the availability of private sector funding and the strength of the business case, Ontario will pay up to half of the eligible project costs, he noted. The projects must address regional connectivity needs for core public sector institutions and also create open, accessible infrastructure for business, residential and other users. Institutional users must be guaranteed a minimum speed of 1.5 Mbps, the same floor recommended by the National Broadband Task Force in its final report (NL, June 18/01). The infrastructure must meet minimum technical service level requirements for the integrated network project set by the provincial Management Board Secretariat. The province will pay up to $100,000 in business plan contributions. To be eligible, a region must lack an anchor city with a population over 50,000 and must have a population density of less than 50 people per square mile. For the infrastructure plan contributions, Ontario pays up to 50% based on the principle of minimizing provincial investment. (Where private sector investment is limited, the province may exceed the 50% level in hard to serve districts.) Applicants must contribute to the project costs through contributions from the partners. Those contributions could include money from other levels of government but funding from other provincial programs cannot be used. The federal government follows much the same procedure, MacLeod reported. Under the Canadian plan, communities prepare a proposal to receive funding for their business plan development. The federal government will give a non-repayable grant of up to $30,000 or a maximum of 50% of costs, whichever is less. At the next phase, the partnerships can receive up to half of their costs to actually implement the business plan. There are seven areas where Canada can continue its global leadership in the high-tech world, the Industry Canada official stated. They are e-content, bringing entertainment and information to the desktop; e-commerce, supporting new methods of doing business; e-meetings, featuring face-to-face interaction; e-learning, allowing education anywhere, at anytime; e-health, saving lives and money through network connectivity; e-government, permitting citizens to become more fully engaged with their representatives; and e-research, providing exponential improvements in research capacity.The same philosophy underlines the COBRA program in Ontario. Groups like the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, and the Ontario Mutual Insurance Association have been urging the provincial government to improve connectivity to enhance business competitiveness. Provincial government research shows that gaps exist between service in large centres and smaller communities. There are shortcomings in 207 of the 216 telephone exchanges in northern Ontario and 446 of the 468 southern rural exchanges. The infrastructure plans should be technologically neutral, Kennedy explained. That would permit communities to roll out broadband through fibre, wireless or satellite solutions.