The CANARIE in the coalshaft: CPC cuts funding to Internet research network

Cross-posted from Mediamorphis

I received an email this morning alerting me to something that had, well, been flying under my radar: CANARIE, or Canada’s Advanced Research and Innovation Network as it is formally known. It appears that the Conservatives used their new budget to eliminate all funding for Canarie as of last year.

Originally set up the early days of the ‘information superhighway by the then Liberal Government, for nearly the last two decades Canarie has progressively built a more extensive high-speed, fibre optic cable that stretches across Canada linking up over 2,000 schools from kindergarten to high schools, 87 universities and hundreds of colleges, 150 hospitals, and dozens of research centres to one another and their counterparts around the world. You can check out the places, province by province, that are connected to CANARIE’s network here.

It allows researchers to collaborate and share their data and knowledge. It is also a linchpin in a dozen or so provincial and regional initiatives to extend leading edge broadband facilities throughout Canada, such as Alberta’s SuperNet. It connects Canadians to the outside world, with links to 100 international peer networks in eighty plus countries.

CANARIE works with the private sector in many areas of telecoms, ICTs, medicine and so forth, such as a pilot project designed to create a wireless network with a cellphone for the deaf that it is working on with Research in Motion or another with Flintbox that provides digital content and copyright management services. Flintbox originated at UBC in 2003, but was sold to the private sector last year. For some that would be a sign of the commercialization of universities, but from a conservative’s point of view it would simply be using universities to create commercially viable products for the marketplace — a public prop for private enterprise, which is in someways what CANARIE is and has been too.

CANARIE’s board of directors is choc-a-bloc full of a rotating bevy of heavy hitters from the telecom and ICT sectors, from Bell, Telus, Cienna Networks, to IBM, but also those who hail from the research side of Government policy making and the academic community. It’s list of members is similarly composed and consists of whose who of corparate, government and academia in Canada.

But CANARIE has, since it’s inception, been designed as a non-commercial entity that aims to further the development of Next Generation Networks and applications for them, rather than either an extension of or competitor to the major commercial network providers in Canada: Bell, Rogers, Shaw, Telus, Quebecor and Cogeco. It develops and experiments with networks that are far more advanced than what commercial providers offer and its networks are based on inviolable commitment to the principles long associated with the Internet: open systems and interoperability.

At a time when those principles are under assault, and the commercial development of networks in Canada lags its major global counterparts, CANARIE in a sense has competed with the private sector by showing what is feasible, and what can be done. As another little piece of CANARIEpromotional material gloats:

CANARIE is unlike any standard network anywhere in Canada.  CANARIE’s core capacity enables data transfer speeds that at-home movie downloaders can only dream of – 10 billion bits per second across the core network and 100 billion bits per second in key corridors.  That’s 200 to 2000 times faster than the fastest current commercial Internet offerings. CANARIE’s ultra-high speed, capacity, and reliability deliver high performance, enabling transmission of and access to high-definition two-way streaming video, audio, complex 3D models and simulations, and ultra-complex 3D images from molecules to galaxies. CANARIE is a non-profit corporation supported by membership fees, with major funding of its programs and activities provided by the Government of Canada.

In terms that make it easier to understand, that means that someone connected to CANARIE’s core network could download the entire iTunes catalogue of 2,500 films in just 7 minutes, or “just 7 seconds on its ultra high capacity networks in major corridors between Halifax, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver”.

CANARIE’s original mandate was set to expire in 2007, but with the good graces of the Conservative Government it was given a new lease on life and $120 million spread over the next five years. As then Industry Canada Minister, Jim Prentice then stated,

The government is working toward becoming a world leader in research and technology. CANARIE embodies some of the strategy’s key goals, such as promoting world-class levels fo scientific and technological excellence, and creating partnerships to accelerate the pace of discovery and commercialization in Canada.  The governments commitment to collaborative research was underlined in Budget 2007, with $120 million in new support for CANARIE to maintain the netwrok for the the next five years and to develop the next generation network (p. 3).

Five years is up next year and, guess what, CANARIE’s funding is set to be eliminated. Never mind that much needs to be done, and the Harper Government’s own previous praise for it as a leader in its field, funding levels that have hovered between $20 and $30 million for most of the last decade appear in this year’s budget to fall to zero next year (see pp. 209-210).

As the dry language of that document states, the “reduction of $31 million is due to the sunsetting of the grant”. Wow, like the rhythm of the solar system money comes and money goes, rather than a decision to kill CANARIE before its mission is accomplished.

This should also be cast in the light of one other consideration that peeks through the budget: the fact that most of the Government’s announced $225 million in ‘stimulus investment money’ earmarked for broadband development in rural and remote communities has already been spent, with $166.5 million out the door last year and with only $21 million set to extend broadband connections to what the government estimates is the 200,000 rural and remote households without such services.

The suggestion that the Conservatives are low in their estimate of the scale of the problem and the size of investment in solving it is indicated, for instance, by the Quebec Government’s budget early this year, which announced spending of $900 million between now and 2020 to extend broadband Internet to all Quebecers and, in particular, the 290,000 households in Quebec alone theat currently do not have access to broadband Internet capabilities. The Conservative Government also lowballs investment in broadband development relative to the US’s plan to spend $7.2 billion on such initiatives, or Korea’s $24.6 billion or Australia’s $43 billion, and a long line of other countries (see here).

In other words, without any fanfare or public attention, it really does seem like we are seeing our own “CANARIE in a coalshaft”, a government pulling a plug on an initiative that has not only been a world leader but also adhered steadfast to principles of an open, interconnected and constantly evolving next generation internet that delivers up a broad range of public goods. As the open, user-centric model of the Internet comes under pressure from a broad array of forces bent on implementing a the ‘pay-per model’ of the Internet, CANARIE served as reminder that alternatives are not only available, but actually feasible and critically important.

For a government bent on a fairy tale version, at least in public, of ‘free markets’, the sense of a viable alternative in our midst was just too much. Better to kill a couple of birds with just one budget-sized boulder, and so CANARIE is sacrificed and miserly support for broadband development for all Canadians cut to the bone.

For a government already widely criticized for lacking a decent vision of the future and an adequate ‘digital economy’ strategy, these moves look just dumb.

More: Could CANARIE fly on its own?

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