warren-birds-fullDSC 5893By R. Michael Warren

When will Owen Sound become an intelligent community?

Owen Sound, along with the rest of the world is experiencing one of the greatest economic transformations in history. Whether we like it or not, we are all immersed in the rapidly expanding global broadband economy.

To prosper, communities must compete in a digital world in which robust ultra-fast networks are becoming commonplace. When most of us think of broadband we're referring to DSL, cable, satellite and wireless. But fibre-optic broadband is dozens of times faster than these systems and carries infinitely more data.

Today's high-speed broadband creates new kinds of companies. It enables small firms to export skills and knowledge all over the globe. Remote schools can have access to the latest curriculum and reference sources. Rural healthcare providers can link to leading medical centers.

Individuals and businesses can shop globally for the lowest cost, highest quality solutions. Web-based tools, of which this digital news site is one, can increase community awareness and involvement. Broadband can also reduce the incentive for young people to move away in search of a better quality of life.

According to the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF), "The explosive growth of global networks has reduced costs, increased trade volumes and made us all more productive."

But they also acknowledge the dark side. "Every worker is exposed to wage and skills competition from every other worker in similar industries around the world." Job security has been dramatically diminished.

"Location and natural resources were once the key determiners of a community's economic potential. But in the broadband economy, it is increasingly the skills of the labour force and the ability of business and government to adapt and innovate that drives job creation."

Communities that are thriving in this highly interconnected world have certain characteristics. A recent ICF study funded by the Province of Ontario identified five:

1. Broadband connectivity - a widely available and affordable fibre optic network throughout a city or region.

2. Knowledge workforce – the determination and ability to develop a workforce qualified to perform knowledge work from the factory floor to the web-design studio.

3. Innovation – building the local innovation capacity of business and investing in e-government programs that reduce costs while delivering more services 24/7 to digitally savvy residents.

4. Digital inclusion – polices and funding programs that provide the unemployed or underemployed with access to digital technology and broadband ... and the training to use these essential tools.

5. Marketing and advocacy – communicating the city's unique advantages to the world, while advocating and advancing the broadband vision within the community.

Role models that are using these best practices are not far off. Kingston, Toronto, Stratford and Winnipeg have all made the ICF's world Top 7 Intelligent Communities of the Year list in recent years.

Kingston has been ranked the smartest city in Canada due in part to its open-access broadband network. More than 90% of local residents subscribe to the service. Innovation Park at Queen's University hosts academic, business and government researchers who work to bring new technologies to market.

During the 1990's Stratford lost over 1,600 low-skilled manufacturing jobs. The city made a conscious decision to use information and communications technology (ICT) as a means of transforming its economy. Since then, the city-owned utility has built 70 km of open access fibre network with a WiFi overlay. Their broadband penetration is 95% households, 100% business, government, education and non-profits.

The City of Owen Sound understands that widely available and affordable broadband is a key factor in promoting economic growth. It provides Wi-Fi in some parts of downtown. Broadband is currently being used by many large firms here. But it remains prohibitively expensive to access by small businesses and households.

"Where you want to live" means having available the basic tools that allow people to create wealth while living locally. Affordable broadband is becoming one of those tools.

The city is relying on the Western Ontario Warden's Caucus to bring us open access broadband. WOWC represents 14 counties in western Ontario including Grey. They have applied to the federal and provincial governments for grant and debt funding for a region-wide, ultra-high speed SWIFT network.

The SWIFT feasibility study recommended a consortium of existing service providers with business, institutional and residential WOWC users. It would "drive redundant fibre connections into 310 communities ... reach into areas with population densities as low as 4 persons per square mile... and give south western Ontario businesses and consumers the ability to compete in the global economy."

But SWIFT's future is by no means certain. The feasibility report acknowledges a host of issues. These include lack of co-operation from some service providers, and a competing network being planned by the province for Ontario Public Service use. Nothing has yet been heard from WOWC regarding the status of their January 2014 government funding applications.

If the ambitious SWIFT regional initiative doesn't succeed, the City will have to devise another broadband strategy. Without one we are missing a major means of boosting the economic and social wellbeing of this community.

R. Michael Warren is a former corporate director, Ontario deputy minister, TTC chief general manager and Canada Post CEO. [email protected]


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