OECD stats highlight Canada’s lost broadband decade

Comparatively little progress has been made in relation to peer countries.

fibre, fiber, internet access, broadband, broadband decade

Broadband Decade:

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has updated its broadband statistics and the results are worthwhile to note for Canadians, given that we’re in a federal election year.

Canada’s position in terms of how many inhabitants are signed up to broadband hasn’t changed over the past few years – the country still sits in 12th position among its OECD peers.

But the shift is notable when compared to the results from a decade ago:

oecd, broadband, broadband decade

The story is similar when just G7 nations are compared. More than a decade ago, Canada had a wide lead over peer countries, but it has since fallen right into the middle of the pack:

oecd, broadband

The reasons for Canada’s lost broadband decade have been well documented here and elsewhere.

In the first instance, Canada is a difficult country to wire given its vast size. Population density is fewer than four people for every square kilometre. Density in South Korea, a country that has sat near the top of the rankings over the same time, is a comparatively whopping 508 people per square kilometre.

As a result, connection growth rates have been low in Canada since the initial burst around the beginning of the new millennium. The OECD’s most recent six-month snapshot illustrates this well:

oecd, broadband, growth

But population density is only part of the story, with government and regulatory policy also coming into play. Perhaps the best evidence of this is Australia’s recent growth rate in the graph above.

Despite having a density even lower than Canada’s, the country is experiencing something of a broadband boom with a current growth rate that is more than triple its northern peer.

It’s no coincidence that Australia is in the midst of rolling out its National Broadband Network, a massive next-generation upgrade with more than $20 billion (U.S.) in government funding.

Broadband subscribers are in turn getting access to super-fast connections at reasonable prices, hence the fast growth in subscriptions.

Comparatively, the Harper government is spending about $300 million to connect rural and underserved Canadians, all while still aiming at what is a now laughable national download speed goal of 5 megabits per second, which is barely enough to stream high-definition video.

To say that’s not moving the needle would be an understatement.

Meanwhile, Canada’s performance in wireless broadband among OECD peers should come as no surprise. Despite carrier boasts about having some of the best networks in the world and their high percentage of smartphone users, overall Canada isn’t a very wireless country at all:

oecd, broadband, wireless

The explanation there should come as no surprise to any Canadian who has a cellphone: some of the highest prices in the world, which actively discourage people to sign up for service.

The Harper government claims it has lowered prices by more than 20 per cent over the past few years through its various policies, but as I explained in a previous post, that’s not true.

Prices – and the bills they result in – have been dropping nearly everywhere in the world. In fact, bills have been declining more slowly in Canada than just about anywhere else.

If there’s one bright spot in the new OECD results, it’s that fibre broadband is finally seeing some growth in Canada:

oecd, fibre, broadband

That said, Canada is still a comparative laggard when it comes to fibre, which generally provides super-fast connection speeds:

oecd, broadband, fiber

All of these results are important to remember as the federal election looms. The Harper government has trumpeted improving consumer choice and competition in the telecommunications market as one of its priorities for much of its tenure, yet the OECD numbers show either a lack of real progress or significant declines.

They are poignant results given the recent global oil crisis and how much Canada’s economy is exposed to fluctuations in prices. The Harper government has had eight years to get the engine of the digital economy revving, but it has failed for the most part on the connectivity side.

A new report from the Harvard Business Review, which looks at this supply-side factor and several others, seems to agree. Canada’s digital evolution is at risk of “stalling out,” the report says.

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