Businesses that use Internet-based applications and services can benefit from substantial cost savings and improved profitability, studies have shown. Yet, only about 50% of Canadian small businesses have adopted information and communications technologies (ICTs) for business process improvement.  Many industry leaders have called on the federal government to take a leadership role in enabling all small- and medium-sized businesses to benefit from these enhanced business processes. Former Industry Canada minister John Manley sat down with Network Letter editor Perry Hoffman at the e-Commerce to the e-Economy conference on September 27 in Ottawa to talk about the role of government in helping Canadian small businesses benefit from Internet-based applications and services. The following is an edited excerpt of that conversation.  Network Letter: Having held an important government portfolio and championed connectivity and broadband, what kind of role do you see for the government in helping SMEs participate in e-economy? John Manley: Part of that is the meat and potatoes of government, which continues to have an important regulatory role that affects both cable and telcos. It’s now 11 years since we’ve passed the Telecommunications Act. It’s probably time to look at that again. I don’t know what changes need to be made, but I suspect that with all the change we’ve had it’s time for a really thorough look at that. We didn’t have anyone from the telcos or cable companies on the panel, but that is direct government responsibility. The broader leadership role I always felt that where we complemented the private sector was in how to develop strategies to get the benefits of information technology into rural and remote communities and communities that were otherwise not likely to be serviced for business use. I think the government still has a role to play there.  NL: There is a disparity in terms of access not only from urban to rural, but also from province to province. What kind of direct role can government play beyond the connectedness? JM: I think the infrastructure is one of the key parts. At the end, the challenge for government is to figure how you do it incrementally. In other words, not how you take on some of necessary burdens that the private sector should be bearing, but how you make sure the benefits get extended to areas where the business case is not there yet and do it rapidly enough. We focused, in my time, to a great degree on the North and on Aboriginal communities and to some extend rural and remote, but I think with broadband it is becoming more imperative.  NL: Is it time for the government to renew itself on this front, take a leadership position to make sure that broadband access becomes an essential service much like basic telephony is today because we’re all going to need it to benefit from the e-economy? JM: I’d like nothing better than to see Mr. Emerson decide that he wants to be a champion of this sector. I certainly don’t believe that we did it all. I think there’s a huge opportunity here for leadership and I hope that he takes it on. I’m not at the point where I can prescribe what the solutions are, but it still needs a champion and I think the Canadian Minister of Industry is the ideal person to do that if I could offer that advice to him. He’s got a department which understands it and which has promoted it. There are programs that are ending as they probably should. The emphasis on connecting schools is largely passé, community access is less of an issue than it was 10 years ago when nobody had it at all. Now it’s in people’s homes, so there is a real shift. But some of the statistics that we’re hearing about small business adoption of information technology, of building the access out into the rural and remote communities still require a champion, whatever the solution might be.