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.

Just Posted

Whether the dust jacket of this historical novel is the Canadian version (left) or the American (right), the readable content within is the same. (Michael Gates)
History Hunter: New novel a gripping account of the gold rush

Stampede: Gold Fever and Disaster in the Klondike is an ‘enjoyable and readable’ account of history


Wyatt’s World for May 14, 2021.… Continue reading

Copies of the revised 2021-22 budget documents tabled in the legislature on May 14. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Liberals introduce new budget with universal dental and safe supply funding

The new items were added to secure the support of the NDP.

Community Services Minister Richard Mostyn speaks to reporters on May 13. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Cap on rent increases will take effect May 15

The rollout of the policy is creating ‘chaos,’ says opposition

Yukon News file
A 21-year-old man is in custody after a stabbing in Porter Creek on May 14.
One man in hospital, another in custody, after alleged stabbing in Porter Creek

A police dog was used to track the suspect who was later arrested in a wooded area.

Safe at home office in Whitehorse on May 10, 2021. (John Tonin/Yukon News)
Federal government provides $1.6 million for Yukon anti-homelessness work

Projects including five mobile homes for small communities received funding.

Drilling at Northern Tiger’s 3Ace gold project in 2011. Randi Newton argues that mining in the territory can be reshaped. (Yukon government/file)
Editorial: There’s momentum for mining reform

CPAWS’ Randi Newton argues that the territory’s mining legislations need a substantial overhaul

At its May 10 meeting, Whitehorse city council approved the subdivision for the Kwanlin Dün First Nation’s business park planned in Marwell. (Submitted)
KDFN business park subdivision approved

Will mean more commercial industrial land available in Whitehorse

Main Street in Whitehorse on May 4. Whitehorse city council has passed the first two readings of a bylaw to allow pop-up patios in city parking spaces. Third reading will come forward later in May. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Whitehorse council pursuing restaurant patio possibilities

Council passes first two readings for new patio bylaw

Neil Hartling, the Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon president, left, said the new self-isolation guidelines for the Yukon are a ‘ray of hope’ for tourism operators. (Ian Stewart/Yukon News file)
Yukon tourism operators prepared for ‘very poor summer’ even with relaxed border rules

Toursim industry responds to new guidelines allowing fully vaccinated individuals to skip mandatory self-isolation.

A lawsuit has been filed detailing the resignation of a former Yukon government mine engineer. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A year after resigning, former chief mine engineer sues Yukon government

Paul Christman alleges a hostile work environment and circumvention of his authority led him to quit

Former Liberal MLA Pauline Frost speaks to reporters outside the courthouse on April 19. One of the voters accused of casting an invalid vote has been granted intervenor status in the lawsuit Frost filed last month. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Voters named in Pauline Frost election lawsuit ask to join court proceedings

The judge granted Christopher Schafer intervenor status

Most Read