As we decide how to recover, let’s ensure that digital infrastructure — the highways and bridges of the 21st century — isn’t an afterthought
“Our digital-first economy demands that we expand our traditional definition of “infrastructure” beyond bricks and mortar to include digital infrastructure — the broadband and wireless networks that have enabled us to keep working, learning, buying and manufacturing through the crisis, and that we’ll need to power us out of COVID-19.”Joe Natale
This year has been like no other — a global pandemic, an economic shutdown, a phased reopening and uncertainty as to the length of the path ahead as we work towards recovery.
One thing is certain: as connectivity has been our lifeline during the COVID-19 crisis, it will also be the linchpin to Canada’s long-term success. More than any event in history, the pandemic has underscored the importance of strong digital networks.
Historically, countries have emerged from recessions with massive investments in traditional infrastructure. Canada built the world’s longest national highway, the Trans-Canada, to get the country moving after the Second World War, and up to half of all our productivity growth between 1962 and 2006 was due to investment in public infrastructure, according to Statistics Canada.
With 2.2 million Canadians out of work in July — twice as many as in February, just before the pandemic hit — infrastructure investments will be critical to our recovery. But our digital-first economy demands that we expand our traditional definition of “infrastructure” beyond bricks and mortar to include digital infrastructure — the broadband and wireless networks that have enabled us to keep working, learning, buying and manufacturing through the crisis, and that we’ll need to power us out of COVID-19.
The increasing importance of these networks is hard to overstate. They reach into and underpin virtually every type of economic activity Canadians undertake, enabling entrepreneurship, fuelling innovation, powering our supply chains, spurring productivity and regional development, and facilitating international trade.
With some of the best networks in the world, Canada is well-positioned for recovery. Even during the pandemic, Canada has ranked among the top countries for network reliability and download speeds. This is impressive but also requires continuing massive investments, given Canada’s sheer size and low population density. Looking at the G7, you could fit five Germanys into Canada — plus five Japans, five Frances, five Italys and five United Kingdoms — and still have room to spare. We can’t afford to slow down the steady investment that has resulted in Canadians enjoying the benefits of world-class networks.
Looking toward the future of work, we anticipate the pandemic will lead to a significant rise in remote work and the creation of more small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) taking advantage of post-crisis opportunities. SMEs were hit particularly hard by the economic lockdown — they represent more than 40 per cent of Canada’s GDP, and created close to 60 per cent of new jobs prior to the health crisis. But they lag in adopting online technology — only four in 10 had an online presence as COVID-19 hit Canada.
We need to focus on driving digital adoption in this sector, as well as supporting work-from-home technologies. Programs like Digital Main Street are a start — it will help digitally future-proof 5,200 southern Ontario businesses and create 700 jobs for co-op students through a $57-million federal-provincial investment.
And our tech sector needs a rock-solid foundation with world-class networks to continue to drive employment and growth. A 2018 joint study by the Brookings Institution and the Martin Prosperity Institute found that Canada’s tech-based advanced industries generated 17 per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product and supported 1.9 million jobs in 2015.
Governments at all levels must come together with corporations, institutions and innovation hubs to prioritize and nurture digital infrastructure with a shared goal of coverage across Canada — including rural and remote areas. We need to provide a seamless digital experience in communities all across our country to address a coverage gap that came into sharp focus in these past few months.
The public and private sectors need to work together on a co-ordinated solution. Part of this could be an expanded role for the Canada Infrastructure Bank to enable broadband expansion to less-populated areas. Increased funding and simplified, consistent criteria for government broadband funds, such as the federal government’s Universal Broadband Fund, will enable faster deployment and strengthened partnerships with network builders. These partnerships are especially important now, as we are poised on the doorstep of a new era in which 5G technology will become the new baseline for innovation. Canada must stay ahead of this wave and cannot afford to leave communities behind.
Each generation makes choices that directly impact the quality of life and conditions for success for the generations following it. We’re staring down one of those moments now. As we collectively decide how to use infrastructure investments to help carry Canada through the worst economic state since the Great Depression, let’s ensure that digital infrastructure — the highways and bridges of the 21st century — isn’t an afterthought.