On April 28, 2020, Canada’s first “virtual parliament” went live with MPs calling in from across the country. As expected, there were some glitches with connectivity and operational issues.
For some MPs, the Internet speed was not fast enough; others could not connect because of the lack of appropriate connectivity in their locales. Even the House of Commons itself did not have the technology and processes in place to deal with the immediate need to conduct business virtually and therefore staff had to scramble to put together a solution with little time to spare.
These issues highlight two significant challenges faced by Canadians across the country who now must work, study, and conduct business from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic: First, access to reliable, secure, and affordable digital infrastructure is not universal in Canada. Second, if Canadians are to benefit from working, learning, socializing, and shopping virtually, they need robust and affordable access to public digital infrastructures.
In its assessment of the state of broadband Internet diffusion in Canada, the Office of the Auditor General of Canada (2018) found that many areas of the country (especially rural and remote communities) are cut off from reliable and resilient access to the broadband Internet, making the promise of working, learning, or shopping online very difficult, if not impossible for some people. For example, only 40.8 per cent of rural communities in Canada have access to unlimited broadband Internet at 50/10 Mbps (CRTC, 2018). Many people in these areas must depend on more expensive, yet limited Internet services provided through satellite or wireless providers—revealing a digital divide in Canada with regards to public digital infrastructures. This is an area where public policy at all levels of government must be developed and implemented to address this disparity caused by market failure in the telecommunications space.
Available and affordable digital infrastructures is crucial to Canadian resilience and agility—today and moving forward. Recognizing these difficulties, The Broadband Fund for Closing the Digital Divide in Canada has been established by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to address the disparities across the nation and provide Internet access to all communities. The CRTC’s fund will provide up to $750 million over five years to “support projects that build or upgrade access and transport infrastructure and to provide fixed and mobile wireless broadband Internet access services in eligible underserved areas of Canada.”
Although the CRTC’s efforts are a good start, the continued dependence on business to lead the efforts to improve connectivity to underserved areas may not yield all the value sought. In some cases, more direct interventions by governments (at all levels) and local communities may be necessary to bridge the chasm that remains. There is a need for committed leadership and sustainable funding for Canada’s digital highway from coast to coast to coast.
The second challenge relates to deficiencies in the internal digital infrastructures of companies and other organizations, as was experienced in the House of Commons. The COVID-19 national emergency measures forced many Canadian organizations to scale up access to digital platforms and services essentially overnight in order to keep their businesses and activities afloat. However, many organizations were obliged to adopt an ad hoc afterthought approach to digital services—both internally and for their customer base. Much of this service acquisition failed to include a stringent regard for security and privacy considerations. The problem with a rushed approach is organizations, even if not by choice, often eschewed proper governance protocols. And, this “shutting the door after the horse has bolted,” tactic may prove problematic in the long run.
In a similar vain to public digital infrastructures, many organizations (business and not-for-profit) face challenges caused by poor or outdated internal digital infrastructures. They often underinvest in these infrastructures due to the hefty cost to acquire and sustain them. As such, the value of backend digital information technology infrastructures is often opaque, making it difficult to characterize in terms of return on investment, prior to the dire need for such infrastructures becoming evident.
As an example, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing stay-at-home and social distancing measures, Zoom, the online video communication app, experienced a sharp increase in active meeting participants from 10 million in December 2019 to over 300 million by April 2020. But to sustain that level of activity, Zoom had to partner with organizations, such as Amazon and Oracle, to support its digital infrastructure requirements. Without this collaboration, the video conferencing services we now access and use would have been be impossible to deploy on such a large scale. Similarly, educational institutions in Canada and across the world had to leverage digital infrastructures provided by companies such as Zoom, Google, and Microsoft (among others) to swiftly shift to online teaching and learning.
It is therefore prudent that governments and businesses alike take pre-emptive strategic action to create and deploy robust digital infrastructures that are accessible and affordable for all communities. This is essential to build resiliency in the face of another pandemic or catastrophic event. Tobias Lütke, CEO of Shopify (Canada’s largest company by market capitalization) said in a recent tweet (May 7, 2020) in relation to the coronavirus pandemic that “While about 70 per cent of retail sales disappeared at the beginning of this crisis, the businesses that were ready have since replaced 94 per cent of lost sales through online channel[s]. The ones that were not ready, left a massive vacuum of opportunities for their competitors.” He goes on to say that all retail businesses need to be digital from the start. This will allow them to exploit multiple channels for selling and delivering their products. The pandemic has clearly demonstrated that businesses, organizations, and governments that have invested in building or have access to robust, secure, and resilient digital infrastructures have been able to respond to the current crisis with agility and surety—being able to shift and scale their operations to suit the demands for more virtual connections with few performance issues. As well, employees working from home with access to high-speed Internet have been able to transition from the office to home almost seamlessly.
The current economic climate has exposed the value of (and reliance on) digital technology for societies globally. The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the need for organizations to review their portfolio of digital investments to ensure that core infrastructure investments are not neglected or forgotten. Investments in core technology and services related to accessibility, security, and privacy need to be prioritized. These investments are the foundation for building a solid digital operating platform. Firms must establish an effective governance regime to ensure that digital investment decisions are made to avoid the haphazard rush to adopt any available technology without the appropriate due diligence. Governments, as well, need to proactively deploy the digital infrastructures necessary, in the face of unarticulated need, to stay ahead of potential difficulties and avoid being unprepared to handle a national crisis.
Canadians want the assurance of moving forward in the best way possible—whether through government initiatives to enhance Internet access for all, to businesses learning the pitfalls of being digitally unprepared—to never again be vulnerable to the social and economic outcomes of a pandemic or natural disaster.
“The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” ― John F. Kennedy, former U.S. President.
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