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Can Elon Musk’s Space-Internet Overcome Canada’s Digital Divide?

Canada has a digital divide: 85.7% of all Canadians have acceptable levels of high-speed internet, yet only 40.8% of rural communities do. On top of that, rural communities are also forced to pay some of the highest browsing fees.

Who should solve this problem? You might think: the government through infrastructure development. Elon Musk thinks: Elon Musk!

In short: Elon Musk’s SpaceX has a ‘satellite internet start-up’, Starlink, which aims to provide satellite internet to “the Northern U.S. and Canada”. This may help overcome Canada’s digital divide where rural communities do not have access to the same degree of online participation due to insufficient digital infrastructure. This is increasingly relevant as COVID-19 induced social distancing increases reliance on the internet.

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The Digital Divide, in brief:

  • The digital divide is a phenomenon whereby regions lacking access to high-quality digital infrastructure are excluded from participating in the modern economy.
  • The shift to a highly digitalized world risks exacerbating the divergence in income and job opportunities between regions.”
  • Exclusion from digital media impacts likelihood of civic engagement, impacting Indigenous populations, especially on reserves where “voter turnout … has historically been notably lower than elsewhere.”

Where is the government? During the 2019 Canadian election, all three major parties: the Liberals, the Conservatives, and the New Democratic Party all proposed some form of reform to fix this.

Since their election and the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been reported that the Liberal Government is “accelerating its strategy to increase high-speed broadband coverage in rural Canada” – but have they?

What did the Government offer? On internet, the Liberals said they would:

  • Connect every household in the country to high-speed internet by 2030″,
  • “Address all critical infrastructure needs (including housing, internet and schools) in Indigenous communities by 2030″
  • Set a national target to ensure that 95 per cent of Canadian homes and businesses will have highspeed internet by 2026, and 100 per cent by 2030″

These goals haven’t had time to manifest, but they remain relevant as the private sector eyes Canada’s under-serviced rural and Indigenous communities.

I smell something ‘Musk’-y: Despite these stated goals from the Government, it has been reported that Elon Musk’s SpaceX applied with the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) for a “Basic International Telecommunications Services” license.

  • Delivered through Starlink – satellite internet could “help bridge the urban-rural divide”, due to it’s lack of requirement for the same physical-infrastructure which traditional internet requires.
  • This may prompt Canada’s concentrated telecommunications market to innovate.
  • This also introduces the private sector into what some say should be a public good.

The bottom line: Although efforts are being made in the public sector, private sector investors clearly see an opportunity if they are applying to develop internet infrastructure.

This begs the question of whether internet service provision, like other elements of our digital world which are central to daily life, are most effectively responded to by solutions from the private sector.