By Stephany Laverty
Published in the Hill Times

May 10, 2021

Of the many disparities laid bare during the pandemic, two of them—uneven access to high-speed internet, particularly in rural areas, and a workforce that lacks the appropriate level of digital skills to build and use a better network—threaten to leave Canada behind in the race to adopt 5G technologies.

Both must be addressed if Canada wishes to maintain competitiveness as the world moves to 5G.

Fewer than half (45.6 per cent) of rural households in Canada have broadband (transmission speeds of over 50/10 Mbps) access, according to the December 2020 figures from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. What’s more, only 34.8 per cent of First Nations had on-reserve broadband access. There was no broadband access in any of the territories and there is heavy reliance on 5 Mbps internet, which is not recommended for streaming or video conferencing. Meanwhile, fully 97 per cent of rural communities had access to LTE cell coverage.

Over the course of the pandemic, this disparity has resulted in an overreliance on cellphones rather than computers in rural and remote communities. People who drove into a town or another community may have found a library or local resource to access broadband internet on a computer. However, for a large portion of Canadians living in rural and remote locations, the highest speed option is an LTE cell phone.

The pandemic-related acceleration of the transition to digital work and learning spaces drew much needed attention to this disparity. The federal government announced $1-billion over six years for the Universal Broadband Fund in its latest budget. Canadian telecom companies are also rolling out towers and services for 5G cellular, the next wave of technology to increase mobile speeds.

But access itself is not the only problem. There are concerns that the workforce will not have the digital skills or literacy to allow business to take full use of this technology. 5G companies Ericsson, Nokia, and Huawei had to provide their own training programs for tower technicians to develop the requisite competencies to install 5G. Canada faces a digital skills gap, particularly in regions that already experienced reduced access to technology. Now, that gap widens as more and more jobs go digital.

Canada needs a life-long and life-wide solution to support the development of digital skills, from infrastructure labour through to end user. The initiative to build broadband and 5G around the country could provide an opportunity, if stakeholders can move quickly. Canadian educators, industries, and government should come together to build a talent pipeline that is comprehensive and meets the needs of Canadians.

One such pipeline could be through apprenticeship programs for students in high school to teach digital technology fundamentals earlier. This apprenticeship would be comprised of two parts— telecommunications and information technology. Telecommunications would allow students to learn how the infrastructure is built and operates. Information technology would build on that learning to understand how business and industries use computers and technology in real world contexts. Including both opportunities in an apprenticeship would allow students to determine what they would like to focus on in advanced studies—telecommunications, cyber security, research and development, business etc.—while also allowing them to understand technology in a comprehensive way.

Apprenticeships would also give companies access to a local workforce so they would not have to rely on relocating as many people. To facilitate these apprenticeships, elementary educators would need to build in coding, literacy and other fundamentals earlier. In areas where computers are not accessible, government, community leaders and industry urgently need to improve access to technology infrastructure and equipment.

For post-secondary education, industry representatives and educators should work together to build competency-based, micro-credential frameworks for the jobs they need now and in the longer term. These frameworks would illustrate the skills and competencies industry needs and how students could ladder them into credentials and jobs.

Before students, domestic and international, take on advanced studies, a competency assessment should be completed, and micro-credentials awarded where possible. This solution allows industry to access the flexible and skilled workforce with the technical understanding and digital acumen it needs, and students have clear pathways to their career goals.

For Canadians, these approaches to educating the technology workforce that is needed to build and use next generation technology would ensure that this country can continue to be competitive in the global economy.

Stephany Laverty is a policy analyst at the Canada West Foundation.

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