It doesn’t take long to go from being a leader to a laggard. That’s what has happened with Canada’s forays into high-speed broadband – the communications network that drives the Internet.

At the start of this decade, Canada was a leader in the Internet Age. Maintaining this momentum, in 2001 the National Broadband Task Force issued a challenging report, setting as a national goal the linking of all communities across Canada by 2004 through high-speed broadband of 1.5 million bits of information every second.

But too little was done to achieve this goal, and today Canada has the dubious distinction of having one of the slowest and most expensive broadband networks among advanced economies. Not only that, there is little political interest in raising Canada’s status as a high-speed information society and little understanding of why this is so damaging to Canada’s future prospects.

Canada’s broadband prices are higher than 20 other countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In fact, Canadian prices are nearly 30 times as high as those in Japan, 12 times as high as in France, 11 times as high as in Sweden and just over 10 times as high as in Korea. Canada also has one of the slowest average advertised broadband speeds, ranking 15th in the OECD. Compared with Canada, Japan’s downloading speeds are nearly 12 times as fast, France’s and Korea’s nearly six times as fast and Sweden’s three times as fast.

Why does this matter? As Robert Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington points out, the universal provision of high-speed broadband will deliver a wide range of benefits that is, in many ways, similar to those delivered by the universal provision of electricity and the telephone in earlier generations.

For example, an expanding network of high-speed users makes the network much more valuable. One fax machine is a doorstop; a half-dozen fax machines have limited use; but a network of, say, five million fax machines has great value. The same is true if large numbers of people are connected to a high-speed Internet network. Moreover, expanding the network to all parts of Canada means people everywhere have an opportunity to participate in the digital economy, making this an important consideration for regional development and rural communities.

A high-speed universal network creates a market for the development of many new applications and, with them, related businesses and jobs. If Canadians do not have the kind of access found in Japan, Korea, the Scandinavian countries and France, they will lose the opportunity to develop these new businesses. Canada will not be a test bed for future Internet-based products and services. In fact, the availability of access to high-speed broadband will become an increasingly important consideration when businesses decide where to locate, so it will have a considerable effect on future jobs and wealth creation.

When the National Broadband Task Force released its report in 2001, it indicated that a universal high-speed system would require strong leadership from business but that to make high-speed broadband universally available and linked to public institutions such as schools, libraries and hospitals would require government subsidies of $1.8 billion to $2.5 billion. Today the speed and bandwidth requirements will be higher than the report anticipated in 2001, as the Internet has progressed rapidly since then (with massive transmission of video content, for example). The need and opportunity are also much greater today.

For a long time, many around the world considered Canada to be a leader in communications. We have since fallen back, lagging behind countries with much more ambitious agendas. But while the United States, which has also fallen back, is actively looking at ways to regain leadership, there seems to be little concern in Canada. We lack a vision of our possibilities.

David Crane writes a monthly column on the challenges and opportunities of globalization for the Institute for Research on Public Policy and can be reached at