I spent Thursday evening and Friday at a meeting called “The Future of the Internet and Sustainable Development Consultation”, hosted by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), an advisory organization funded by various bits and pieces of the Canadian government. This particular exercise is aimed at producing advice for Industry Canada, which has some reasonable concerns about the Internet, Canada, and the world. Data point: Canada, once second in the global Internet connectivity scorecard, is now nineteenth and falling fast. Which isn’t good.

This was a process and community entirely new to me. I’ve felt vaguely guilty for years, given that the Internet is central to my life, that I’ve never really even looked at issues of policy and governance. I’ve shared the despair at the nutty-seeming behavior of ICANN and the remote weirdness of the Internet Governance Forum, but have never taken a single step toward, you know, involving myself with any of this stuff.

The people assembled, by some unspecified mix of reputation mining and old-boys’ networking, were also from circles I don’t normally touch. There were a handful of geeks like me; also retired executives, some from Really Big Companies. Then there were Directors and CEOs and CIOs and so on from an unclassifiable assortment of organizations, representing themselves only; but I’ll list some of the organizations just for context:

  • Telecommunities Canada

  • Western Canada Computer Industry Association

  • Electronic Stewardship Association of BC

  • Save Our Net Coalition

  • First Nations Technology Council

  • International Centre for Sustainable Cities

  • Mountain Equipment Co-op

  • Sustainable Energy Association

  • Canadian Business Ethics Research Network

  • One Earth Initiative

  • Vancouver Community Network

  • David Suzuki Foundation

  • National Dialogue on Canada’s role in the world

Attendees at the Future of the Internet and Sustainable Development consultation

I note with pleasure that this gathering differed in another way from those of the geek tribe: it was more or less half female.

I’m not going to spend too much time on the process or the questions or the scenarios; those are all under active development, and whatever comes out at the end of the process will be on the public record.

But I will highlight a few of the stronger impressions that I’ll be carrying away.

They Like Us! · To my fellow geeks: the community of environmentalists and social-policy experts and sustainability obsessives think, by and large, that the Internet is a Good Thing; part of the solution not the problem. And they’re friendly and polite and stylish, and nice to us Morlocks.

I think someone’s missing a trick here. Most people I know in the geek tribe would resonate instantly with these folks’ ideas about how to go about fixing the world. If we could find them and they could find us, I suspect they’d find a few of us who’d drop everything to Help Make Something Happen.

Internet Locality · I was fortunate in ending up at a table with Caroline Lewko and Richard Smith; discussion zeroed in on the relationship between the Internet and locality. Caroline worried aloud about the powerful growth of online community weakening the local sense of community, as observed in neighbors who don’t know each other and sidewalk garbage un-picked-up and snow unshoveled.

I can relate to that, since I live online. But, in large part because we have kids and a house that needs fixing, we manage to connect. Who knows; maybe if we’d decided to remain childless and in an apartment, we might be entirely delocalized.

At this point Prof. Smith chimed in, telling us first about some personal experience and then about his current research. He lives on Bowen Island, where he and several dozen neighbors banded together on a mailing list to deal with some potentially-harmful local development and have ended up with a vibrant localized online community.

He told us that he’d been researching rural Internet usage, which in Canada, with a whole lot of thinly-occupied space, is a big deal. His initial findings are that the usage is intensely local. The Web sites of big cities are often largely ignored except for garbage-pickup schedules. In little communities surrounded by mountains and mosquitoes Richard thinks he’s seeing a trend toward online hyperlocal activism and organization, which can’t be a bad thing.

Whence emerged a potentially-wonderful idea. I happen to live in Canadian Postal Code V5Y 2B3 and it occurs to me: how about having mailing lists for “V”, “V5”, “V5Y”, “V5Y 2”, and so on? Some really clever policy creativity would be required to make these easy to join and simultaneously spam-resistant, but we have this great big honking government department that might be able to manage it.

Don’t know about you, but there are times when I would seriously love to have a mailing list for my block or neighborhood or city.

Public and Private · Warning: I’m about to indulge in a little bit of crass nationalism (a rare sin in this neighborhood). The discussion that provoked it centred on the declining quality, by any objective standard, of the Canadian Internet: it’s too expensive and not fast enough.

The conventional wisdom is that the problem is caused by a telecom-company oligopoly that doesn’t get much competition and simply doesn’t care very much about Internet service quality. Be that as it may, the question arises: what might the public sector do to help?

What impressed me was the complete absence of either Government-is-the-problem or Government-is-the-solution mysticism. We spent some time thinking over the highways metaphor: Government builds the roads but exercises a fairly light regulatory hand over who can drive on them and what business they conduct. In a big country like ours, it might make all sorts of sense to put Big Government Money into Internet infrastructure, like maybe fiber (everywhere I look, I see public servants digging up asphalt) and rent the bandwidth to whoever wants it.

In any case, I’m grateful to the IISD folk for inviting me, I hope they get a good outcome from this process, and my sense of guilt about being alienated from the policy end of the Internet has been sharpened.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Ryan Cousineau (Mar 30 2009, at 13:01)

Wow, lots of ideas for one fragment!

I don't know that the government, per se, is going to create any great benefit from "helping" in this area.

The telcos and cablecos are acting as competing interests in the last-mile market. Locally, Telus is desperately playing catch-up to (mostly) Shaw, in that they don't have the same level of last-mile bandwidth, and they're trying to roll fiber out as a competitive advantage. The costs will be huge, but if they can win the much-coveted triple-play (phone/TV/internet) then it will pay off. And downtown, there's further interests working at fiber-izing apartments one building at a time. Competition is quite keen.

Rogers also has a WiMax offering, and while it's not perfect, it offers effective broadband in certain very specific circumstances, as well as a great way to run one big pipe to a small rural community, and then last-mile-ize the whole village in one go. That may or may not be economic in all cases, but it's another tool.

Rurally, it's mostly about satellite. Anything else involves a lot of money to serve the last mile to the last 10%.

The contradiction of Canada is that we have a very low population density, but we're 90% urbanized (and 75% within 150 km of the US border). If this sounds like a disastrous formula for internet provision for the rural 10%, well, it is.

As for the postal-code mailing lists, this is an interesting idea, but I remind you of three letters: D I Y.

The ease with which a neighbourhood could be postered with references to a neighbourhood mailing list/website is so great that, um...I think I'll do one for my neighbourhood! I'll let you know how it goes.

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From: Maja (Mar 30 2009, at 13:54)

Hello! Your Postal Code mailing list idea is terrific -- I wonder how one might go about approaching Canada Post about this?

I really enjoyed the rest of your post, too. Canada certainly needs reliable and affordable fiber connectivity across the country, as a bare minimum for sustainable development, and for long-term competitiveness. As we enter the "convergence age" it also needs user-centric and forward-looking policy ideas for Internet, TV, and telephony provision.

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From: Paul Ellis (Mar 30 2009, at 19:26)

Wow, not sure what exactly is being looked at to measure a drop from second to nineteenth in global internet connectivity, but it sure sounds like a wake-up call. I suspect that the early lead was based on a head-start from being able to leverage a lot of the existing communication infrastructure. The slip is probably similar to what we've seen in telecoms where later developing countries have skipped ahead by adopting cell and wireless technology and leap-frogging over the need to string wires everywhere.

There are some small examples of goodness around. Traveling through YVR and YYZ recently I find that there is free wireless internet access everywhere. This is a much better than having to navigate the sign-on and pay per hour services that are still in most other places I travel.

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