London Should Redefine What ‘High Speed’ Means

Posted: October 18th, 2011   |   Category: Blog | Case Studies | Industry News | Strategy

High Speed Rail = High Costs

A recent report from the EcoTrain Commission concluded that the economics behind high-speed rail simply don’t add up.  Here are some of the basic details:

  • If approved, a Toronto-Quebec high-speed system would cost about $19 to $21 billion
  • At the rate taxpayers get ripped off by low-ball estimates, expect that number to double
  • The timing would be at least 15 years to complete the project.  My son will be finished university by then.

Being completely uninformed about the details of the matter, I reluctantly agree.  I’m all for public transit.  Believe me, please.

However, I simply don’t see car obsessed commuters from places like London and surrounding rural areas changing their habits when it comes to the peak-hour drive-time into Toronto and back out to the burbs.

Recommendation for a High Speed Alternative

All the talk about high-speed rail translates to a pipe-dream for what used to be.

The last time we spoke of a national railway was far back in the time of Confederation when Sir John A. MacDonald obsessed about seeing a hard rail running from sea to sea (start humming ‘Canadian Railroad Trilohgy’ now …).

We need better vision than that and I have a simple suggestion:  become obsessed with high speed Internet.

Make our Internet and all related digital services first-class and the best in the world.  Bring this country together digitally instead of physically.

The government of Australia recently built a first-class broadband network for the public with great fanfare.  This was a national initiative to bind communities digitally via the Internet as opposed to forcing them to meet in a single place such as Toronto or Quebec City.

The time for that antiquated mindset of meeting centrally has come to a close and an aggressive broadband plan – either for Ontario, Quebec or the whole country – will truly set us apart when it comes to creating a communications vision for this country.

However, for this to work, it has to be a public network that leases pipe to private companies, much like an electric or water utility might.  Here’s how things were managed in Australia:

A government-owned company, NBN Co, has begun building a nationwide open-access network mixing optical fiber with microwave and Ka-band satellite to bring broadband to the entire nation at globally competitive prices. The base offering is 12 Mb down and 1 Mb up for A$29.

Despite setting start-up prices, NBN Co is not a retail business. It is an infrastructure play that has already signed up dozens of ISPs to provide service. It is under construction at new residential property developments across the country and a set of First Release sites where fiber is being run to existing homes and businesses.

It’s that easy.

$19 billion (times two, give or take) would go very far indeed in bringing businesses closer together without the blood, sweat and toil of a physical rail line that has to negotiate expropriation for land and produce endless volumes of CO2 from trains running day and night.  Ooops.  Day only, as running it during the night would probably not be economical.

Whither Our Private Companies?

Companies like Bell, Rogers and others have been delinquent in the role of creating a vision for all of Canada when it comes to being the ‘best in breed’ for digital access.  The following statement could easily sub in Canadian names:

When it deregulated and sold its national carrier, Australia made an ill-fated choice: it allowed Telstra to become the dominant pay TV provider as well.  With the power of incumbency over both telecom and TV, Telstra took a very leisurely route to rolling out broadband, so much so that Australia was one of the last developed countries in the world to introduce ADSL.  Today, for such an advanced and prosperous country, Australia is way behind the curve in broadband. Availability is patchy and prices are high – the classic diseases of under-liberalized markets.  The result is that public understanding of broadband is limited, adoption is sub-par, and all the myriad applications that create devoted users are not being created locally.

In other words, we need to radically rethink the way we manage our digital infrastructure, profit from it, and invest in future pipeline, be it state-of-the-art fibre or wireless services.  Or something completely unique that’s beyond ‘state-of-the-art’, assuming that exists (and it does with the Alternative P2P Internet Infrastructure or with simple tools like Frontline SMS or delivery via home power lines).

It starts with seeing the Internet as a vital public utility.  Cities like London should be taking digital seriously and making their own public investments into the digital grid and infrastructure.  A federal or provincial program similar to the Economic Action Plan where each level of government contributes an equal amount would be a good way to stimulate this program.

Once we’ve got a real vision for the future instead of one that hungers for what was, we can start to layer in strategies and ideas about how to make it so that Canadian businesses will be able to stand out when it comes to ecommerce, shipping and other modes of distribution, including online file transfer.

Besides actions being taken by OpenMedia.ca, there’s not much happening now when it comes to petitioning for a public infrastructure, but this will change when people start getting dragged into courts because they were busted for downloading the latest Justin Bieber CD or wanted to watch their favourite sitcom from the 80s but couldn’t find it via high-cost cable services.

Until then, breath a sigh of relief:  the high-speed rail boondoggle will probably be put off.  For now.

Bill Wittur
Bottree Digital Services

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