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University of Waterloo president David Johnston says Canada needs a strategy to encourage digital technologies because they are "as important as the printing press was 500 years ago." ((CBC))

U.S. policy makers are set to unveil an ambitious new broadband plan on Tuesday but Canada is seeing a "failure of imagination," says the head of the country's most influential technology school.

"Most people who study the digital field would say that Canada has lost some of the wind in its sails, and that's unfortunate," David Johnston, president of the University of Waterloo, said in an interview with CBC News.

"Without being unduly critical of this government, there has not been a lot of attention paid to broadband, to the digital economy and digital media in the last five or six years."

The Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. equivalent of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), is scheduled to table its broadband plan to Congress on Tuesday. The plan is expected to prescribe measures on how to boost the adoption and use of high-speed broadband internet — the roads and railways of the modern age — and thereby ensure continued economic prosperity.

In Canada, the federal government promised a digital strategy in its Throne Speech two weeks ago that would include a broadband plan, as well as new anti-spam legislation and copyright reform.

But the government delivered few details in the follow-up budget a day later or since then. The government also made waves by suggesting in the speech that it would open up foreign ownership restrictions on telecommunications, but appeared to backtrack in the budget by limiting that plan to satellite companies.

Despite the lip service on the digital economy, Johnston said, the government doesn't appear to understand how important broadband and other information communications technology (ICT), such as mobile phones, are to economic development.

"There's a lack of understanding that ICT is a transforming set of technologies, as important as the printing press was 500 years ago. Because Western Europe understood the transforming qualities of the printing press, it took off. Chinese society, Islamic society and Indian society did not," he said.

"We are at least in that kind of measurable comparison today. Those societies that have a better understanding of the digital economy will prosper very quickly and those that don't will not. We've had a failure of imagination there."

Johnston's comments carry weight in Canadian technology circles. The University of Waterloo serves as a major recruitment base for several of the biggest technology companies in the world, including Microsoft and Google, as well as nearby BlackBerry maker Research In Motion. Johnston himself helped steer Canada to its early technological leadership position in the late nineties after chairing the government's Information Highway Advisory Council.

Productivity a major concern

Canada's productivity gap with the United States, which is already dramatic and growing by about one per cent a year, is particularly worrisome, Johnston said. By allowing the gap to increase, Canadians will have to work harder just to maintain their standard of living.

While productivity is a difficult thing to explain, Johnston likened it to banking. People who have to line up to pay their bills in person with a teller, as they did 20 years ago, are disadvantaged compared to those who do their transactions quickly online. The time spent doing things the old way could be used more productively, whether that means work or leisure.

Johnston said the country's university system must shoulder part of the blame for the lag in Canada's technological mindset. The schools haven't done enough to train students to work smarter, he said, which means that few Canadian companies succeed based on innovation. Of Canada's biggest companies, most are banks, while only BlackBerry maker Research In Motion — also based in Waterloo — has succeeded internationally, mainly because it has focused on innovation.

"RIM has been able to engineer products better than some pretty fierce competition," he said. "Better engineering is just being smarter."

Johnston's comments mirror those of several Canadian technological leaders. Patrick Pichette, Google's Montreal-born chief financial officer, recently told a conference in Toronto that businesses in this country have been slow to adopt the advantages of getting online, and in marketing on the internet.

"Canadian companies do not spend what would be required to actually capture the advertising opportunity; they are staying traditional in their behaviour and mindset," he said in a recent interview with the Financial Post. "Even if they're a medium-sized company and they've never done any of it before, go and learn — whether it's with Google or somewhere else — learn digital advertising, because that's where people live now."

A wealth of data and recommendations that could serve as the basis for a digital economy plan already exists, Johnston said. A 2001 report titled "The e-learning e-volution" by the Advisory Committee for Online Learning suggested 39 courses of action, ranging from the funding of new research and infrastructure to student aid and copyright reform. A 2000 report titled "A time to sow" by the Council of Ontario Universities also laid out a similar plan.

"Ten years ago there was good thinking on this," Johnston said. "We should dust that off and look at it."