Community Access (CAP), Canada’s Digital Strategy, and Digital Inclusion: From Here to CAP 2.0?

Posted on March 18, 2010

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The annual crisis of funding/survival for the Canadian Community Access Program seems to have come and gone so perhaps it would be timely to reflect a bit on the history and future of CAP and what it says or doesn’t say about why Canada has moved from somewhere in the top 3 of digitally enabled societies to somewhere below the top ten and slipping fast. Also, what all that might mean in the context of the recently announced but as yet not delivered Canadian Digital Strategy.

I’ve had a personal involvement with CAP in various of its forms going back some 15 years to its very early origins as program for enabling rural Internet access and its piloting in Nova Scotia in 1994 and roll out as a program in 1995. From the beginning the program was seen as a means to universalize digital participation within Canada.  The specifics of what was being understood as the objectives of the program by its government sponsors in fact varied from period to period—at one time being concerned with ensuring participation as e-consumers, in other instances concerned with training of new users, and in other instances attempting to use it as a base for engaging Small and Medium size enterprises in digital communications.

One major difficulty with the program was that it lacked any research and development capability and thus it was unable to learn from its experience. Also, there was little interest or financial support from government to allow it to grow and evolve as the overall digital awareness and capacity (and thus requirements for support for those at an entry level) evolved with the technology and with the overall evolution of digital awareness and capacity in the broader society/economy.

What this has meant is that CAP as a program has been caught in a time warp since the end of its first round of major funding – sometime in the early 2000’s — with just enough financial support to keep the doors open (with the help of intern staff provided as job training by another government agency). It has however survived without either the resources or the vision to effectively modify or extend activities at the local sites, link into emerging technology developments that might have value in support of its core program and users (e.g. multi-media, or broadband) or to begin the process of redefinition of what the requirements might be to ensure a broad-based (universal?) digital inclusion for all Canadians in the second decade of the 21st century.

Where Canada actively boasted about its program(s) for digital inclusion and went around the world promoting and even trying to sell these as implementable packages in certain (mostly Less Developed) countries  (as responses to the Digital Divide), Canada now seriously lags virtually the rest of the world in having no program or vision in support of a universal platform of digital inclusion. What appears to have happened is that Canadian politicians (and their civil servant advisors?) have understood the transition to a digital society/digital economy to be a once and for all evolutionary shift accomplished once and then forgotten; rather than recognizing that this transition is one where the underlying digital platform is in a continuing state of upgrading and evolution and that the user population must be encouraged and enabled to undertake similar such changes.

The most current developments—broadband as the basic infrastructure supporting digital activity and mobile communication as part of the device spectrum through which digital activity is undertaken are both, in the Canadian context seen as optional enhancements rather than as additions to the fundamental enabling infrastructure. That other countries (Australia and the USA) have committed to massive investments in extending broadband access (recognizing that they are lagging the leaders in this area such as Korea and Sweden) while others have created a regulatory competitive framework that provides cell and mobile (Internet) access at costs which are fractions of those available in Canada (India, Sri Lanka) simply reinforces how far Canada has fallen in these areas.

The failure of imagination and the blindness of the prevailing market ideology among Canada’s political and economic elites has meant that the issues of digital inclusion and broad-based digital participation are seen as issues to be resolved if at all by market solutions.  That, not surprisingly, Canada’s percentages of Internet utilization have fallen in the last several years is accepted as simply the result of lack of interest on the part of consumers rather than as failures in public policy which will have long lasting results both at the individual and at the national level.

The result of course is that individuals without the opportunity or means for being digitally enabled are denied effective participation in a political, social, economic and cultural world where digital elements are a seamless component of all of these activities. Equally of course, as a society (and economy) Canada as a country is the loser by not having access to the full economic, cultural and social participation and productivity of a significant portion of its population and where the nation’s capacity for innovation and change in response to external demands and opportunities are diminished directly as a consequence.

That this is occurring is of course, completely consistent with the process undertaken by the current Canadian government in consulting on a national Digital Strategy without evidently consulting with any groups other than those with a direct commercial interest in the outcome of such a strategy.  If Canadians are expected to respond to digital issues only as consumers then of course, there is little need to consult with Canadian digital users and producers on a Digital Strategy since this strategy is only meant to respond to the their (and the market’s) needs for them as digital consumers.

That Canadians may have interests in a Canadian Digital Strategy from their perspective as cultural and economic producers, as citizens, as learners, as residents of rural and remote regions, as those who are currently economically marginalized, and so on seems not to have occurred to politicians or officials who either don’t or wish not to recognize how deeply pervasive digital media have become in all aspects of daily life. That they seem to be failing to look beyond the very narrow elements of the digital economy in their consultations on the formulation of the strategy suggests how limited and ineffective the strategy will in the end be since for such a strategy to be effective it must begin by ensuring that there is the widest availability of the most current digital platform and the widest possible inclusion of digital participation and effective use built on that platform including in support of cultural creation/production, learning and including social learning, involvement from the social and geographical periphery as from the heartland and so on.

A CAP 2.0 with additional resources for extending the range of facilities to which access is being provided and for undertaking renewed and extended efforts in training, outreach, and community mobilization could provide a large component of the delivery channel needed for such a Canadian Digital Strategy for Social and Economic Inclusion.

A failure to provide such a strategy will leave Canada in the position of falling further behind its more imaginative and less ideologically constrained international competitors and ultimately both economically and socially poorer as a consequence. That CAP has been given renewed resources to limp along in its current state for another year should certainly be welcomed (the alternative dismemberment of CAP would leave scandalously many people without any opportunity for digital participation) but this additional funding should be seen for what it is, a response based on political expediency (too many people were going to be very angry if CAP was cancelled) rather than any measure appropriate to the requirement.

If, as seems likely, the Harper government’s Digital Strategy is presented without any linkages or consideration of its relationship to CAP or the issues which CAP has been attempting to resolve then the victory of blinkered market ideology over commonsense in a digital era will be complete and Canada will slip ever further behind its allies and competitors in these most crucial areas.