Digitally divided: the DC haves vs the Ottawa have-nots (1)

 

***

>> Updated with correction on CIUS

As noted below, I sent an inquiry to Industry Canada about whether or not the Canadian Internet Use Survey had been cancelled. The question was passed on to Stats Can, and yesterday their media relations office got back with this message:

“Statistics Canada will conduct the Canadian Internet Use Survey in 2012.  Collection will take place in October and November.”

I stand corrected – though if you look below under what was “2 – Industry Canada has cut off funding for the CIUS” (now with strikethrough), I’m sticking by my guns on the other comments.

_____

FCC’s Genachowski in San Diego to declare war on the digital divide

In my last two posts I took Genachowski to task for his retrograde stand on data caps. Today I come to praise him. Genachowski gave a pep talk last Thursday at San Diego’s Horace Mann Middle School. He was there to promote a Connect2Compete pilot program. San Diego is one of 20 school districts in the country “participating in the FCC’s Learning-on-the-Go program, which is helping schools implement mobile learning solutions like interactive digital textbooks” (transcript of JG’s talk here).

Connect2Compete is an ambitious outreach program, designed to close the digital divide by helping millions of disenfranchised Americans become onliners. The offer is a smart one-two punch: 1) get folks the gear they need, free or cheap; then 2) help them learn the many things they need to know to use the gear comfortably and become engaged, real-life onliners.

C2C tackles the tough social policy issues surrounding Internet adoption and requires unaccustomed behavior for bureaucrats: escaping the Beltway, meeting citizens on their own turf, and dispelling the belief held by millions, especially low-income families, that they have no reason or right to be on the Internet. Moreover, the cost to taxpayers is pretty much zero. This bargain is made possible by a public-private collaboration that brings together a number of non-profits, plus some big IT firms, working hand-in-hand with officials from the FCC. The agency has released a 5-page brief outlining the details (I’ve uploaded the pdf here).

Warning: the usual invidious comparisons lie ahead. I’ll be noting what the FCC and the Obama administration are doing about broadband adoption, the better to cast a harsh light on the cynical, do-nothing approach taken by Canada’s political masters. (The FCC program was initally announced last fall; I wrote about it on Nov.15, in “Digital divides: UBB as part of a much bigger broadband mess.”) Let’s look at some of the key issues.

The first thing to note is the FCC is promoting broadband adoption and use, not boasting about hypothetical “access” or pretending “market forces” will make everyone happy.

The FCC has negotiated deals with an unusual mix of 3rd parties. The list begins with a dozen ISPs that have agreed to provide cheap access ($9.95, no extras), including America’s biggest – Cablevision, Charter, Comcast, Cox, Time Warner Cable. Next, tech refurbisher Redemtech, along with Microsoft and Morgan Stanley, are providing cheap but powerful computers, and a well thought-out suite of software – technical support included! The third leg of this stool concerns previously announced initiatives to promote adoption, jobs and digital literacy. These initiatives are supported by an impressive array of non-profits, including America’s Promise Alliance, Digital Promise, Opportunity Nation, and others well known for their work on social justice, like the NAACP.

And Ottawa? Galloping frantically in the opposite direction.

If these were Canadians in a library, they wouldn’t be here – nor would the PCs

***

1 – Industry Canada has axed the Community Access Program

Instead of increasing funding as the Internet gets increasingly indispensable in our lives, IC has taken the axe to CAP, one of the programs most needed by the digitally disenfranchised, as it provided public Internet access at schools, community centres and libraries. As Global News reported:

“Industry Canada sent out letters on Thursday [April 5] notifying program coordinators it would not renew funding for the Community Access Program or CAP, a service accessed disproportionately by lower-income Canadians, seniors and those with low computer literacy.”

It's a series of tubes?

What a blessed relief it would be if the Ottaweanies just admitted they ran out of money, or failed, or wanted to try another idea. Not on your life. Instead, the geniuses at IC – like so many federal officials – feel compelled to pat themselves on the back every time they fart:

“The Community Access Program was launched in 1995 and has met its objectives,” said Margaux Stastny, a spokeswoman for Industry Minister Christian Paradis. “The vast majority of Canadians are now connected to the Internet at home, while many more have access through their mobile devices” (my emphasis).

Met its objectives? Of course, that must be why all those low-income families, seniors and rural Canadians are enjoying a rich-media, mobile cyberlife on their $800 iPhones – until they arrive home to the joy of a dirt-cheap, 50-meg high-speed connection with world-class ISP support. To suggest we can pack up and go home because our social policy goals for the disenfranchised have been met is a really lame cover for fallout from budget-cutting.

And the allegation the “vast majority” of Canadians are on the Internet is a silly piece of obfuscation.

What’s been buried here is the difference between being on the Internet and being on broadband, a distinction IC is hoping no one will notice. Even if the vast majority of us were on broadband, which we’re not, millions of our citizens would have no clue how to make the Internet a useful part of their lives – precisely why the FCC has undertaken its unprecedented program to attack digital illiteracy.

In 2011, I exchanged numerous emails with the Stats Can analyst leading the Canadian Internet Use Survey (CIUS). Last May he confirmed that, after accounting for a rounding error, the number of Canadian households with a broadband connection (of any kind or speed) stood at 75% – i.e. 3 out of 4 of all households were on broadband (I posted the details here). So, at the time, 25% of Canadian households were not on broadband (notice this is HH not individuals). The data are based on the CIUS field work conducted in late 2010, the latest available. My guess, however, is that this 25% hasn’t shrunk appreciably in the ensuing 18 months. Why? Because most non-adopters, aside from those who can’t get high-speed because of location, cite either affordability or lack of relevance as the main barrier. Ironically, the reason we haven’t got more recent data from Ottawa… is Ottawa has also chopped this program, as we see next.

2 – Industry Canada has cut off funding for the CIUS

2 – Ottawa’s deep problem with evidence-based policymaking

I was told last fall that the agency had only been doing the CIUS thanks to dedicated funding from IC – and the funding was now gone, taking the survey with it. I’ve emailed an inquiry to IC asking for clarification. They’ve passed it on to Stats Can, response pending. See update above.

Whatever the position on the CIUS, Ottawa has a deeply entrenched problem concerning evidence-based policymaking, a point I’ve made ad nauseam in previous posts. The CRTC has failed in its mandate to promote the public interest because it has never equipped itself with meaningful evidence about the welfare of Canadian media consumers – a shortcoming that has become much worse as we’ve transitioned away from the legacy media to Internet-based media. You might be wondering what this kind of evidence about consumers would look like. Here are just a few items to illustrate the point, taken from the FCC’s C2C document (not in their original order and of course US-centric):

  • 80%+ of Fortune 500 companies require online job applications.
  • 50% of today’s jobs require technology skills, and this percentage is expected to grow to 77% in the next decade.
  • Students with a PC and broadband at home have six-to-eight percentage points higher graduation rates than similar students who don’t have home access to the Internet.
  • Consumers with broadband at home can save more than $7,000 a year.
  • Closing the broadband adoption gap will create $32 billion in annual economic value, or about $100 for every American, every year.

These are the kinds of consumer-centric data points I’ve never seen discussed in any CRTC or IC policy document. Back in July, I posted a lengthy analysis of this failure under the title “Beyond UBB: the CRTC’s war on Canadian consumers.” What I described there was regulatory behavior that is of a piece today with Industry Canada’s do-nothing approach to our digital future:

“Ottawa is caught in a time warp, unable to understand that while no one needs to learn how to watch television, everyone has to learn how to get on the Internet, how to use it and how to draw the benefits from it that are meaningful to them – as individuals, not as part of some ‘system’ [like the broadcasting ‘system’]. The market does not supply this education and never will, something the FCC obviously understands.”

(I’ll be back with the 2nd part of this post tomorow.)

D.E.