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Canada strives to be most wired country

March 9, 1999
Web posted at: 10:38 a.m. EST (1538 GMT)

by Clare Haney

(IDG) -- Canada's Internet ambitions know no bounds. The country simply wants to be the most connected nation in the world by next year, according to a Canadian deputy minister.

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Speaking here yesterday at the Hong Kong Information Infrastructure Conference, Kevin Lynch, Canada's deputy minister of industry, explained how and why his country wants to achieve that goal. Under the umbrella phrase, "Connecting Canadians," the country is instituting six initiatives: Canada Online, Smart Communities, Canadian Content Online, Electronic Commerce, Canadian Governments Online and Connected Canada to the World, he said.

The six initiatives aim to ensure that every Canadian has access to leading-edge information technology infrastructure; that a maximum of 10,000 community Internet access sites are set up, along with 12 world-class smart communities; that the country can act as the test-bed for online applications, including "tele-learning" and "tele-health"; that Canada can become a global center for excellence in electronic commerce; that the national government take full advantage of the Net; and that the entire country is fully connected to the rest of the world.

As an example of what Lynch believes the Connecting Canadians initiatives could achieve, he showed a video clip of the difference Internet connectivity has made to the small, remote Inuit community of Rankin Inlet -- which has a population of around 2,500 people.

Lying close to the Arctic Circle, Rankin Inlet has no roads or rail service and intermittent air service, Lynch said. Eighteen months ago, the Canadian government decided to implement the Connecting Canadians initiative in the community through satellite access. Currently, 20% of the adult population is online, along with the community's Leo Ussak Elementary School, Lynch said. Some individuals are using the Net to sell their wood carvings, he added. Lynch quoted a community elder as saying that people in Rankin Inlet now feel better-connected to the outside world, with information flowing both into and out of the community.

Lynch stressed that in implementing such initiatives, speed is vital. "You can't take the stately government pace" of four years to make a decision, he said. Lynch pointed to the implementation of Canada's SchoolNet project as an example of moving with the times.

The project aims to connect each of the country's 16,500 schools and 3,400 libraries to the Internet, with one networked computer for every classroom, he said. When SchoolNet began in 1994, no schools were on the Net. By 1995, 3,000 schools were connected. That number grew to 7,000 in 1996 and 11,000 in 1997. "By the end of this year, all the schools will be connected to the Internet," Lynch said. SchoolNet projects also are under way in other countries around the world. "We're two to three years ahead of the U.S. and other rival countries," he added.

As to why Canada's embrace the Net is so important, Lynch said he believes that moving to an information society will create jobs, economic growth, strengthen productivity and build a stronger society, economy and democracy. Being connected to the Internet will produce better-informed citizens with more of a say in how they're governed if the government itself is readily available online, he said.

"The Internet restructures the paradigm of learning, especially lifelong learning over a 35- to 40-year working lifetime," Lynch said. "'Tele-learning' will be absolutely enormous in a world where products change every six months and technology changes every 12 months." He added that in the areas of "tele-learning" and "tele-health," small to midsize companies have the potential to come up with the necessary "killer" applications.

In social terms, Lynch said he believes Net connectivity will help to break down the traditional barriers separating inhabitants in urban and rural areas. The government needs to ensure that those who are increasingly disconnected in society -- the elderly, poor and ill -- are connected.

Governments need to put the necessary frameworks in place or remove impediments to make the information society happen, Lynch said. By frameworks, he referred to tax incentives, intellectual property rights protection, encryption technology and the necessary skilled IT knowledge workers.

"The immigration pool [of skilled IT workers] is one of our key strengths," he said, making the case for Canada. "We have excellence in our own education system and an open door policy" for immigrants.

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