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Sidewalk Labs’ original vision for Toronto’s Quayside neighbourhood helpfully drew attention to the importance of the ‘digital layer’ as an essential feature of contemporary city building. This concept incorporates the foundational elements of digital infrastructure – an integrated network of fibre optic cabling, access points, databases and software that enables the wide range of social, economic and cultural activities of today’s vibrant cities. While the digital layer obviously offers significant new capabilities that transcend more familiar urban network infrastructures, such as roads, sewers, water mains and the electrical grid, there are crucial similarities that should not be over-looked amid the rhetorical dazzle of ‘smart city’ imaginings. Like earlier urban infrastructures, the digital layer needs to be useful, ubiquitous, reliable, adaptable, accessible and affordable for all. But the most important similarity is around ownership, control and governance, for these are fundamental in determining who shapes the infrastructure and whose interests it ultimately serves.

Strong city governments, drawing on existing public governance and ownership models, can take the lead in ensuring that their digital infrastructures inclusively address a wide array of social and economic interests, more so than typically on offer from commercial providers. Developed and operated as a public utility, a metropolitan or even neighbourhood wide digital layer could be an important boost to city departments and other civic services that have growing needs for networking, such as civic governance, schools, libraries, police, firefighting and emergency services, traffic management, parking enforcement, parks and recreation, and health and building inspection to name a few. Not only would the city’s major institutions be better served if linked via a city-controlled digital network, but the schools and libraries scattered across the city could further function as ‘anchor tenants’ that would then make connecting residences and businesses in their vicinity much cheaper. Structuring the network with open architectures and access policies, where ISPs or businesses with networking needs could purchase bandwidth from the city at wholesale rates, would also help foster competition among commercial providers and stimulate a variety of innovative services and entrepreneurial ventures.

On the other hand, relying mainly on ‘market actors’ to drive the provisioning of urban infrastructures is short-sighted. One major risk with this approach, especially when dealing with large corporations, is that it inadequately addresses existing power asymmetries. In particular, once vendors become entrenched they have few incentives to invest in their infrastructure rather than maximizing economic returns by raising prices on essential services and keeping competitors out of the market. This results in offerings mainly targeted at and priced for those with the ability to pay, while further depriving the already marginalized of the services they depend on in their daily lives. Such has been the bitter experience in many jurisdictions that have privatized their water and electricity supplies - a pattern likely to be repeated even more starkly where cities allow private actors to develop urban digital layers from the beginning.

In effect, cities have the opportunity to craft much better digital services in the long term by designing them with and acquiring them on behalf of their citizens, much as Canadian governments now do with health care. This will lead to better outcomes than what will occur if residents are left on their own as individuals to face large commercial providers. Such leadership will take political will, particularly in the face of expected stiff resistance from incumbent telecom companies and rampant high-tech platforms, but it is of crucial importance for Canadians’ ability to participate fully in the social and economic life of their cities well into the future.

The rise and fall of City-owned Toronto Hydro Telecom (THT) provides a cautionary tale in this vein. In the mid-2000’s THT, a subsidiary of the City’s public electricity provider, embarked on an ambitious program to provide affordable internet access throughout Toronto. THT already operated a 450-kilometre fiber-optic network, the largest in the city providing data services to many of Toronto’s major businesses. THT launched the first phase in 2006 with its One Zone wireless service coverage of downtown core. It was a resounding technical success, with promising return on investment prospects for extending it across the entire city. However, facing various financial and political pressures, undoubtedly including resistance from the telecommunications providers whose business was threatened, the City of Toronto abruptly sold off THT to Cogeco.

This selling off of its crown jewels represented an enormous missed opportunity at a critical time for the City to shape its digital future. Revitalizing Toronto’s eastern waterfront with a close eye on the digital layer provides a rare and invaluable opportunity for the City to reclaim the initiative in contemporary urban infrastructure building for the benefit of all.