Canada is still an elite broadband nation according to new rankings from the OECD, but just barely.
In its twice-annual broadband penetration rankings — a measure of how many inhabitants in member countries value high-speed internet enough to pay for it — Canada held on to its 10th spot out of the 30 nations comprising the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Canada had 9.2 million broadband subscribers as of June, or about 27.9 per every 100 inhabitants. Denmark led the rankings, which were released on Monday, with 36.7 subscribers per 100 inhabitants. Mexico brought up the rear with only 4.7 subscribers per 100.
Canada led G7 nations, but the United Kingdom was close behind and is on pace to push the country out of the top 10. The United Kingdom ranked 11th with 27.6 subscribers per 100.
The growth rate of subscriptions in Canada was above the OECD average of an extra 2.6 subscribers per 100 inhabitants over the past year. Canada added 3.1 subscribers per 100 inhabitants but the United Kingdom was still closing the gap, with broadband connections growing by 3.8 subscribers per 100.
Canada has lost its early broadband lead — in 2002, it ranked second among OECD nations, next to only South Korea.
Part of the lower standing has to do with other nations catching up, but critics have also said Canada's large internet service providers have not invested enough and have steadily raised prices, which has discouraged many from subscribing.
"We got in at the ground floor but we remained at the ground floor while others kept building," University of Waterloo president David Johnston told the Canadian Telecom Summit this summer. "There's an urgent national need to regain our advantage."
High-speed internet access is increasingly being seen as economic infrastructure vital to making a country's businesses competitive on a global level.
OECD figures support those claims to some extent. According to previously published numbers, as of October 2007, Canada had the fourth most expensive average broadband price relative to speeds, at $28.14 US per megabit, behind penetration laggards Turkey, Mexico and Greece.
The closest G7 member, the United States, had an average price that was less than half of Canada's, at $12.60 US. Denmark, the OECD penetration leader, had an average price of $17.70 US.
Canada was also one of only four countries where it was impossible to get a service plan with unlimited downloading from a major provider, with the others being Australia, New Zealand and Belgium.
Canada ranks near middle for speed
Canada's lost lead has also been blamed on the federal government, which has been criticized for not doing enough to bring broadband to remote and rural communities that have been underserved by telecommunications providers. Before the recent election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to spend $500 million to roll out broadband in those places.
Speed-wise, Canadian offerings were middle of the pack. The fastest speed offered by a phone company clocked in at 16 megabits, ranking 15th, while the best cable speed of 25 megabits ranked well at seventh.
Canada did beat the rest of the OECD in the prevalence of cable broadband connections versus phone-line-based DSL (digital subscriber line)subscriptions. About 53 per cent of Canadian subscribers had broadband over cable, a ratio that topped the OECD.
South Korea has also seen its early lead evaporate, slipping to seventh in the latest penetration rankings. Japan, which leads the OECD in cheap pricing and blazing speeds, also ranked lower than Canada, at 17th.
The penetration figures for both countries are somewhat misleading, according to the OECD, because many inhabitants of South Korea and Japan also have cheap, lightning-fast broadband access on their cellphones.
Canada ranked second last in the OECD's latest ranking of cellphone penetration, next to only Mexico.