Connectivity is just as crucial to recovery as reopening

For much of the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus for many businesses has, understandably, centred on reopening. When, and how quickly, can employees and customers return?

While we’re in a better spot to answer those questions today — with new guidelines from provincial health officials on distancing, sanitation and masks — there is another, bigger question. How do we get business done in the meantime?

In most cases, the answer to that relies on technology. Enable people to work remotely; meet with clients or vendors over video; move ordering online. In the first month of the pandemic, home internet download traffic shot up by as much as 50 per cent, and uploads as much as 70 per cent. Mobile call minutes increased by 60 per cent. We moved almost all of our lives online, and the networks held up.

Through the pandemic, these networks have been tested like never before. In the short-term, carriers increased the number of circuits to manage higher call volumes between providers and kept national network speeds among the fastest in the world. They also added capacity to their broadband networks and rerouted traffic to meet exponential growth.

These interventions worked — nine in 10 Canadians say their home internet service hasn’t suffered from the increase in use. Reliable connectivity saved countless jobs in the region, driving modest growth in sectors that could function completely online — like finance and administration. This sustained some activity in our otherwise sinking economy. National GDP is projected to shrink by nearly 7 per cent this year. The Innovation Corridor, anchored by the Greater Toronto, Hamilton and Waterloo regions, lost an average of more than 600,000 jobs in the first three months of the pandemic.

Now is the time to think long-term. Broadband access has proved invaluable. There is no return to pre-pandemic levels of use. Many businesses have announced extended or permanent remote-work policies. Some manufacturers are reinforcing their assembly lines with AI. Schools and training programs are delivering parts of their academic programming digitally, while governments move health, legal and city services online. Novel ways to control COVID-19’s spread — like touchless tech or app-based contact tracing — all demand strong, reliable connections.

Each of these steps will fuel our economic recovery while preventing future spikes in transmission. More broadly, embracing wireless tech was always in the cards — the pandemic just pushed us here sooner. The uncertain future of this virus and a vaccine means that technologies developed to facilitate collaboration will become even more crucial, not just to our recovery but to the sustained growth of a new economic reality.

In this new world, we must recognize our digital infrastructure as not just another sector, but a core component of our economic and social lives. This can materialize in two major ways.

First, through more investment. Despite overall network stability, gaps in home internet service puncture the country, province and even pockets of the Toronto region. If all people are to contribute to, and share in, our recovery, these gaps need to be closed. In less populated areas, the solution lies in partnerships between governments and network builders to expand coverage.

Second, through better policy. For instance, Canada’s telecommunications regulator has proposed that network builders must provide wholesale access to companies that don’t invest in building their own infrastructure. That policy undercuts private investment, equally undercutting efforts to expand broadband and potentially costing our GDP $ 10 billion a year within five years. If we want faster connectivity, the rollout of 5G across Canada and a speedy economic rebound, we need regulations that encourage business-led growth, not stifle it.

All other tools are already in hand. We have the talent, with Toronto’s tech sector growing three times faster than any other region — making up 10 per cent of our workforce. We have the incentive, with our economy hitting its lowest point since the Great Depression. We even have the supports, with offerings like the Toronto Region Board of Trade’s Recovery Activation Program helping businesses grow by digitally restructuring and moving more online.

With the right investments and regulatory priorities, we can ensure our recovery is like our connection: strong, expansive and fast.

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Jan De Silva is president and CEO of the Toronto Region Board of Trade. Jorge Fernandes is chief technology and information officer at Rogers Communications.

TORONTO STAR