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Why Google Wants to Connect All Canadians

12/09/2013 12:36 EST | Updated 02/08/2014 05:59 EST

Admit it: the last time you lost internet connectivity on the subway for 10 minutes, you didn't know what to do with yourself. It's easy to forget in our world of instant connectivity that more than two-thirds of the global population still don't have access to the Internet. There are two billion people online now, but a whopping 5 billion more are expected to come online within the decade. This tidal wave of new participation will create sizable opportunities and likely a few pressure points.

Information, once jealously guarded by competing forces, is now a shared commodity: a freely accessible resource on the Internet, at once empowering, democratizing and disruptive. Across industries, countries, even our day-to-day lives, the newfound accessibility of information has caused staggering changes.

Today, anyone with a smartphone has better mobile communications than President Reagan did 25 years ago; and simply by using a search engine, we have access to more information than President Clinton did only 15 years ago. The power of the computers that put a man on the moon are not as powerful as the phones in our pockets.

The Internet has had a transformative role in countries where it currently is widely available, and will no doubt do the same for those coming online. Closing the digital divide will realize economic and social benefits for new participants as well as for the economies and industries that are part of the solution to narrowing the gap. Canada needs to seize this moment and plant its stake at the forefront of global leadership in this transition.

First, we need to work towards new, affordable options for internet access in rural and remote areas around the world, including right here at home. At Google, we challenged a group of our engineers with this problem and earlier this year launched "Project Loon," testing the ability of giant, high-altitude balloons flying about twice as high as commercial aircraft to deliver internet to remote areas.

Delivering internet access to underserved areas across the world is the type of moonshot -- an audacious goal inspired by JFK's famous ambition to put a man on the moon and return him safely -- that cultivates the innovative, revolutionary thinking essential to solving the most complex global challenges. For its part, Canada should define and drive a moonshot of its own.

Second, we need to make sure Canada is poised to support the opportunities presented by dramatic expansion of the Internet. Our diversity is a huge asset -- we have the cross-cultural knowledge and relationships to grow businesses that can reach markets across the world.

But more Canadian businesses need to think globally and accept greater risks. Too many of our businesses lag behind their global competitors in key areas -- from low private R&D spending (which has actually declined in Canada by nearly 25 per cent in recent years), to lagging adoption of new technologies vital for improving productivity and growth.

Canadian businesses are outpaced 3-to-1 by their US peers in terms of the number of companies realizing the benefits of cloud computing, and even in 2013, less than half of our small- and medium-sized businesses have a tool as basic as a website.

We each have to find ways to address these yawning gaps, whether by challenging our businesses to make use of Internet technology to actively grow their online presence and revenues abroad, or by leaping past incremental thinking to define the moonshots that will engage our best minds and bring us to the forefront of global innovation.

With its heritage of world-class engineering talent, great education and fast broadband infrastructure, combined with an openness to attracting the brightest, technically-skilled, entrepreneurial people from around the world, Canada is in a position to lead and succeed in a wired world if we choose.

Last fall I met two entrepreneurs from India who are working to put a tablet in the hand of every child in the country -- 400 million children -- as a way of eliminating the literacy gap, and the digital literacy gap, inside of a generation.

They set this audacious goal because they know that it is needed in order to make sure those kids can compete in the rapidly changing global economy. Those young kids will be part of the 5 billion people coming online worldwide; let's be ready to welcome them when they arrive.

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