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Nortel: Discovering the obvious on Discovery Street

Last Friday, I found myself on an Ottawa City Transpo bus at eight in the morning, passing, in dreary, winter-morning light, through the all but deserted Nortel Carling Campus in Kanata, Ontario.

Last Friday, I found myself on an Ottawa City Transpo bus at eight in the morning, passing, in dreary, winter-morning light, through the all but deserted Nortel Carling Campus in Kanata, Ontario.

For those of you gifted with short technology memories, Nortel Networks used to be the poster child of Canada’s information technology industry - until its protracted, scandal-ridden, and epoch-marking collapse, which began in 2001 and crawled to an ignominious end with its filing for bankruptcy protection in January of 2009.

The Carling Campus, located in the once largely agrarian Ottawa suburb of Kanata, was the company’s original home, dating from the early ‘60s, when Nortel was still just

Northern Electric Limited.

A humble enough place to begin with, it expanded and bloated, particularly over the bubble-boom years of the late ‘90s, to encompass 10 laboratories, housing as many as 15,000 thousand people, centred by the

signature Crystal-Palace like blue glass dome over Lab Five.

On that Friday morning, the rush hour passengers leaving the bus on the little side road called Discovery Street consisted of three guys - all certifiably nerdy, with blue jeans, backpacks, ear buds, and Blackberries - and one stylish, managerially-clad woman.

The place is in a managerial limbo, right now, as Nortel and its sub-lease clients prepare to move out, and the federal government, which recently bought the whole shebang for a bargain basement $208 million, prepares to move in, with its Department of National Defense.

Another half dozen or so of us remained on the bus, bound for other techno-destinations further down the road.

(I was, in fact, bound for a conference room in the pricey Brookstreet Hotel and Spa, to attend a session on internet governance policy hosted by the Canadian Internet Registration Authority - an event of considerable interest in itself, but off topic for my purposes here. I will talk about it in a future column. And, by the way, I was on the city bus because I was commuting from a much cheaper hotel in downtown Ottawa.)

I had not even thought about crossing paths with Nortel or other cold realities on this quick weekend junket, but I ran into a number of them during my short stay - hence this column.

The abandoned condition of the Carling Campus is, in many respects, symptomatic of the entire technology sector in the Ottawa region.

Though large IT players like Cisco and RIM (Research in Motion - the Blackberry people) continue to occupy office space in and around the Brookstreet Hotel and Kanata North Business Park, the whole area has an under-populated, dispirited air about it.

Some of that feeling of weary abandonment may have been a product of the early hour and the bleak, damp, snowy weather; but it is more than a subjective fact that Ottawa has lost its grip on the technological future it was so sure it had in the bag.

What was going to be Canada’s Silicon Valley North has become something more like the Shadow of the Valley of Corporate Death.

According to one news story I have come across since, the Kanata Chamber of Conference confirms the vacancy rate for commercial space in the town is something like 15 per cent - this, when the rate is at about six per cent across Canada as a whole.

Which explains why the federal government could get such a comparatively good deal on the swank, two million square feet of office space at the Carling Campus.

And the fact that a big, stodgy government department is taking over real estate that was slated for a whiz-bang technology enterprise is also indicative.

The statistics show that Kanata is still a rapidly growing community, but it isn’t growing because of a large scale nerd infusion; it is growing because Ottawa continues to accumulate more and more bureaucrats.

However dismal and disappointing the federal government’s results have been at transforming Ottawa into a techno-tropolis, however, it is actually not such a bad thing that it failed.

That failure, in fact, was in fact in the cards from day one, for the simple reason that government bureaucracies just don’t have it in them to actively plan and foster development in industries as volatile as the information technology sector.

Put brutally, they are too out of touch, too risk-adverse and too techno-brain-dead to do the kind of visionary work venture capital does, and they shouldn’t try.

Our government made two big technology bets in the Ottawa region - Nortel and Corel, and both of them were stupid.

They continued to buoy up Nortel through a long period of visible failure and - as it later came to be known - active fiscal maleficence.

In the case of Corel, they embarrassingly insisted on using that company’s market-defunct WordPerfect software program long after all sensible business and private users had abandoned it for more genuinely functional solutions like Microsoft Word.

You needed special software to translate the attachments sent to you by your government so that you could read them, whatever official language you happened to speak.

In short, our federal government should stay out of the technology betting game, because they are just too dumb not to lose their shirts at it - and ours.

Our government does a fair to middling job of running the country (that is, they only tax us to death, they don’t actively shoot us), and they should leave it at that.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie

who lives in Whitehorse.