Home > Internet > CANARIE Killers?: Did the Conservatives Just Pull the Plug on Canada’s Premier Internet Research Network?

CANARIE Killers?: Did the Conservatives Just Pull the Plug on Canada’s Premier Internet Research Network?

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. Who knows, maybe there’s a place connected to CANARIE right in your own neighbourhood. Probably.

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 privatized last year in a sale to a U.S. company, Wellspring Worldwide. The venture has done extremely well since, expanding the number of universities, pharmaceutical companies, software developers, and so forth that use the service from 78 to more than 400 institutional users.

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 is also tied close the private sector through a board of directors that 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 affiliated members similarly consists of a whose who of corporate, 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 being 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 an inviolable commitment to 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 CANARIE promotional 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 stated at the time,

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 government’s commitment to collaborative research was underlined in Budget 2007, with $120 million in new support for CANARIE to maintain the network 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 aside this year to extend broadband connections to what the government estimates is the 200,000 rural and remote households without such services.

That the Conservatives are low in their estimate of the scale of the problem and the size of investment needed to solve 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.

  1. Serge
    June 14, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    Is it time to issue a retraction yet?

    • Serge
      June 14, 2011 at 1:39 pm

      Ah. Didn’t realize there was a whole other post. Please delete — my comment makes no sense now.

  2. Margaret Guest
    June 13, 2011 at 11:11 am

    When the CANARIE network was launched it coincided with the emerging fields of genomics and bioinformatics research and building information exchanges to support the NRC Network`s of Centre`s of Excellence. In these early days of genomics research one of the barriers was the capacity to share facilities and exchange data. Canadians may not be aware but our research excellence is built on networks of research collaborations and partnerships that depend on reliable networks to share ever-increasing data sets. The absence of university inter-connectivity would mean you would not have the capacity to participate in large-scale projects as you simply couldn`t gain access to data to conduct analysis. The CANARIE network put Canada in the forefront to bioinformatics and genomics research at a time the sequencing of human and other genomes was just getting underway. Leading Canadian researchers in university, government labs and industry were able to collaborate and compete with international consortiums to secure investment, major grants, lever additional infrastructure investment, recruit internationally reknowned scientists and competitive graduate students. CANARIE proved Canadian scientists to exchange outreach programs with schools and colleges across Canada. This was the integrative infrastructure that made our research and teaching capacity more competitive and allowed us to compete.

    I would like to compliment Dwayne on bringing this matter to the public`s attention.
    Unless you were part of the emergence of the informatics era at Canadian universities and have seen the transformation of our campus research since CANARIE was introduced it would be hard to see why this issue requires our urgent attention.

    Let`s look back at the early 1990s at an era when Canadian universities were largely independent autonomous institutions. Collaborations between scientific communities were small scale and poorly funded outside of health research.

    In the early 1990`s Canadian researchers complained of the brain drain (to the United States and elsewhere) as Canadian university`s were unable to offer the infrastructure required to recruit top scientists, teachers and bright graduate students. There was a steady flow south of out top talent and the federal government, under Jean Cretien, realised that in order to stem the flow we would hve to find creative solutions to restricted budgets and limited sources of infrastructure funding. It was in this environment that CANARIE was conceived. We wanted Canadian scientists and students to have access to the same resources American universities, colleges and high schools had access to. A plan to network our universities and schools was developed with a view to lever each institutions resources by linking them to a network via the information superhighway. The National Centres of Research, Networks of Centres of Excellence program is an excellent example of how CANARIE enabled these leading research groups to lever resources to grow many spin off research centres, institutes, biotech ventures, partneships with industry etc.

    Without CANARIE the NCE program would have rendered university entrepreneurs handicapped. One of the key steps in the growth of our university research community has been a reliance on sharing infrastructure, expertise and capacity so that no region in Canada is left without the means to train students and conduct the same calibre of research in Halifax, Montreal, Waterloo, Regina and Vancouver. Sequencing centres in Toronto and Montreal supported work conducted in Vancouver and Halifax. Data collected could be quickly analysed at bioinformatics centres in Calgary, Halifax, Toronto and Vancouver. Thanks to the efficiency and security of the CANARIE network universities didn`t all need to apply for multi-million dollar informatics, sequencing and other equipment for large-scale analysis at the same time. The beauty of the CANARIE system was the easy acceptance amongst Canadian researchers and teachers of the need for our centres of learning to share and exchange resources. Why would we pull the plug on a program that has delivered so much success?

  1. June 13, 2011 at 10:00 pm

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