Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Mobile Priorities: Spectrum, Talent and Much Lower Costs

Earlier this month, I attended a seminar on mobile technology and Canada's economy presented by Backbone Magazine and the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance.

The event, titled "Mobile Opportunities: The Next Big Wave Lifting Jobs, Business Growth", featured presentations by Sara Diamond, President of OCAD University, and Namir Anani, CEO of the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC).

Peter Wolchak, the editor of Backbone, opened the session by acknowledging the important role of mobiles and Canada's impressive adoption, yet cautioned that this has not translated into stellar success for Canada for either jobs in this sector or optimal use by businesses.

Diamond and Anani both addressed this dichotomy in their presentations. Their presentations and the following Q&A raised a slew of crucial issues to foster (or salvage) Canada's digital economy, particularly as they pertain to mobiles. The discussion acknowledged the well-known limits of all tech innovation in Canada - lack of access to capital, our small domestic market, the lure of business and talent to the U.S. - but then expanded on the rather unique challenges facing the mobile sector.

The growing importance of mobile in our daily lives and economy is often hyped, but both Diamond and Anani shared some impressive statistics (from various sources) about adoption of mobile technology and its impact that confirm the ongoing centrality of this technology for Canadians.

Some findings Anani shared:
  • as of 2010 there were more connected devices than people (12.5B devices to 6.8B people) globally
  • 76% of Canadians have downloaded apps
  • global app market is estimated at $26 billion and is expected to reach $58 billion in 2014
  • 51,000 Canadians are currently employed in the apps economy, reaching 78,000 in 2016
  • 67% of Canadian workers leverage mobility as a business tool
  • Mobility adoption in Canadian businesses accounts for a 4% productivity gain
  • 68% of Canadian employers see mobile adoption as a crucial business enabler going forward
Although Diamond's research focused specifically on Ontario, she believes it reflects the larger Canadian context. She highlighted some impressive findings, such as:
  • 78% of Diamond's survey respondents showed a strong interest in accessing more services through mobile technologies
  • 74% showed a strong interest in learning how mobile technologies can augment or replace common tasks
  • 40% wanted to have sensitive information such as identification and credit cards on a mobile device
  • Internal productivity is priority of large companies, while small to medium enterprises are more interested in innovation that mobility can bring to their products
  • 76% of businesses felt that mobility was important to productivity today
  • Canada is a world leader in mobile-related pattens and mobile research
Despite this situation, it was generally agreed that Canada has not been sufficiently keeping up with global rates among international leaders of adoption, utilization, or innovation of mobile technology. And if we let the situation deteriorate further, then not one will Canada lose any first-mover advantage, but we will reach a point where it is impossible to catch up in this sector. Various issues were identified, but here are the ones that resonated most with me:

1) Recruiting and retaining talent is a problem
The businesses working in mobility face staffing challenges - not enough Canadians have the necessary skills to fill the available jobs in the sector. Anani pointed out that youth unemployment is 14% in Canada, double the national average. But this is a perplexing situation as " who better than digital natives to tap into the demands of new technology". We need to figure out education and training solutions to address these challenges.

Diamond noted that not only is more funding and programming needed for skills training in mobile design and engineering, but educators need to rethink how the field is presented to young people. She stated, that educators "need to make it more exciting, to have a dialogue with youth to show that it is not just science and engineering, there are creative jobs." A great example of how this technology can be taught more effectively can be seen in the activities and apps that TIFF put together for their digiPlaySpace as I recently blogged about.

2) Cost of mobile access is way too high
The costs of mobile access in Canada is dramatically higher than most other countries. There was consensus that the high costs were:
  • limiting productivity gains that would result from greater mobile use
  • creating access barriers based on income
  • stymieing innovation by curtailing usage
An attendee quoted a Netflix executive who said "It's almost a human rights violation what they’re charging for internet access in Canada...The problem in Canada is… they have almost third-world access to the internet." Various methods to lower these costs were discussed, such as fostering greater competition, deregulating foreign ownership of our telecoms, making all network access free for everyone and even having the government give mobiles devices away.

3) Mobility is expanding into more areas of life
The bedrock of mobile device usage has been for personal and workplace communication, but increasingly mobiles are assuming a greater role in health, education, and commerce. Canadian companies and officials need to move beyond an exclusive focus on communication (and gaming - I'd add ) and embrace these sectors. The app sector is often dominated by consumer focused and  $1 apps, but there is much more economic potential enterprise, B2B, and healthcare apps.

4) We need more spectrum
Anani raised the crucial point that as more and more connected devices, such as appliances, cars, machines, etc. and with healthcare apps we need much more spectrum. In the U.S., officials have been successful in getting companies to release their spectrum allocation to help address this gap. Canada should consider similar actions to release spectrum.

Other recommendations were raised:
  • establish and enforcing stronger privacy, security, and consumer protection frameworks,
  • create bridges between research, start-ups, and industry organizations
  • governments should procure technology domestically and deploy across all levels of government
  • government needs to be a role model of mobility innovation through their services offerings
  • BlackBerry (formerly RIM) is so central to this sector in Canada that we need to keep them healthy
The presentations were drawn from reports by Diamond and Anani's organizations. For more information, consult OCADU's Taking Ontario Mobile report and ICTC'sDefining the Global Opportunity for Canadian Firms: A Road Map for Mobile Apps Stakeholders.

No comments: