According to an illuminating piece in the May issue of The Atlantic Monthly, less than 10 per cent of the citizenry of China, Iran and Saudi Arabia enjoy access and they also must endure the most rigid and comprehensive censorship.
Canada is at the opposite end of the spectrum. This country is a world leader in terms of access and freedom. A rather astonishing 98 per cent of urban households, and 69 per cent of rural homes, have access to broadband or high-speed Internet. Almost 50 per cent subscribe, and they receive it via cable, telephone or satellite.
That puts us way ahead of the United States, where only about 35 per cent of households have the Internet.
"We're so far ahead of the U.S. in broadband Internet use at home that it astounds people," says Bernard Courtois, president of the Ottawa-based Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC).
When it comes to business, we're not doing as well. According to research conducted in 2003 by Statistics Canada, 97 per cent of large companies and 76 per cent of smaller ones are connected.
Another survey conducted in 2003, this one by the Canadian eBusiness Initiative, revealed that only 29 per cent of Canadian companies had their own websites and a mere six per cent were using the Internet to sell online. Furthermore, firms in this country invest, on average, only 48 per cent per employee of what their U.S. counterparts spend on computers and related technology.
ITAC views all this as a serious problem and this January formed what it calls the e-Team, a 10-member committee of representatives from leading companies including IBM, Bell Canada, Microsoft Canada and Hewlett-Packard, to investigate. More recently the committee commissioned an in-depth study of small to medium-sized companies to find out why they are not using computer technology to grow their business.
Courtois suspects there are some legitimate barriers that prevent them from employing the Internet for much more than e-mail or creating a website. For one thing, they usually lack the in-house expertise required to put technology to work in a way that will drive sales and revenue.
Taxes are another problem, Courtois says. Investments in computer hardware and software attract higher taxes than money spent on other types of equipment.
"That might have made sense 25 years ago," he says. "But when you see how much the world has changed, we're shooting ourselves in the foot."
Canadian attitudes are also playing a role, Courtois says. Using the Internet and, more broadly, computer technology as business tools requires new ways of thinking and fresh approaches. It usually forces companies to retrain their employees to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by technology. But businesses in this country appear to be less likely than their U.S. counterparts to abandon the tried and tested.
ITAC says that under-utilization is worrisome because Canada lags the U.S. in productivity growth, and computer technology is now generally recognized as having the power to make a nation's workforce more productive.
Several studies in recent years have concluded the investment in information and communications technology (ICT) can improve the volume and value of economic output. This March, for example, the federal Telecommunications Policy Review Panel concluded in its final report that: "Weakness in ICT investment is an important factor contributing to Canada's weak productivity performance ... Increased investment, therefore, represents an opportunity for improved performance at the economywide level."
ITAC is focusing on small and medium-sized business because that is where the problem and the greatest opportunities lie. Such companies represent a far larger chunk of the economy in Canada than they do in the U.S. Therefore, they need to get bigger if we hope to see sustained growth in gross domestic product. And when they grow, good things happen.
"What you need to build an economy is small and medium firms that want to get larger," Courtois says. "We've commissioned research that shows that the biggest economic gains come from turning small firms into mid-sized ones. They contribute the largest revenue, employment and research and development growth."
(D'Arcy Jenish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)