Jim Mutter has an idea about how to educate people in the Lower Mainland about the realities of living in rural B.C.
He calls it “56k Day”. And he’s only partly kidding when he talks about it.
“I sometimes say we should have 56k Day in Vancouver where everyone has to go back to using dial-up internet. Then we can say, hey, this is what it’s like for people in lots of other parts of the province.”
It would give people a sense of the so-called digital divide that separates rural from urban B.C. and, in fact, puts rural B.C. at an economic disadvantage, said Mutter, president of the premier’s technology council.
The council was formed by Premier Gordon Campbell shortly after he was elected in 2001. He asked the 17-member committee to investigate how the province might “leverage” technology to bridge the digital divide.
By far the biggest need identified so far in rural B.C. is for rural areas to have the same access to broadband as their urban counterparts, said Mutter, who along with a number of other council members is conducting a series of consultations throughout the B.C. Interior.
“It’s that vision that’s being talked about,” he said. “I really see it as about being able to offer the same treatment as the Lower Mainland gets anywhere in B.C.”
It’s not as great an issue in a centre such as Prince George, he said. Broadband is available in the city and initiatives such as the Northern Medical Program are building high-tech into their development.
The medical program at the University of Northern B.C. will use real-time video conferencing to teach classes and provide training to medical students here, in Victoria and at the University of B.C. simultaneously.
It’s a “brilliant” example of how technology can be used to bridge those gaps, said Mutter.
“But you’ve also got medical professionals who are going to want to be able to use the technology when they are out in the regions, so how do we do that?”
The council has identified 361 communities in the province with at least a public school, library or health care facility – in other words a government-owned public building. Some 168 of those communities still lack broadband.
The council has identified the need for a level technological playing field as the basis for solid economic development strategies.
Just as the railroad and the highway systems were considered critical to the development of Canada as a nation, connecting communities through the information superhighway is seen as the next important “nation-building exercise,” said Mutter.
The council has recommended as a primary goal that the province act to bridge the digital divide within 18 months.
That doesn’t mean the government is going to offer free internet to the province, or even take on the lead role in developing technology, he said.
“We’re in a time when we need to be a little more clever than that. It’s not, ‘fund everything, fund more.’ It’s, ‘where can we adjust our priorities to get the most benefit?'”
The council has been tasked with developing recommendations in four broad areas: the digital divide, government operations, including e-health and e-learning, industry growth and development, and the marketing and branding of the province.