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The following report aired originally on CBC radio’s weekend newscast The World This Weekend, on November 1, 2014. It is a radio version of a story I reported for The Local Germany.

Canada is one of the world’s most wired countries, but some rural areas are still waiting to get high speed internet. They may have something to learn from Germany. A group of tiny villages has managed to go digital and they’re helping others step it up. Tomas Urbina reports…

a man and three women stand holding internet equipment

CEO Ute-Gabriel Boucsein (second from left) and members of the Buergerbreitbandnetz Gmbh team.

Shunned by government and big telecom companies, a group of villagers in rural northwest Germany is set to expand the super-fast internet network they built to a second village. The Local’s Tomas Urbina went to meet the villagers as they prepare to put shovels in the ground.

On a Thursday evening in August, about half the residents of Sollwitt, a village of 123 homes nestled in the green fields near Germany’s border with Denmark, jammed into the only restaurant in town. They were there to hear how lightning fast internet service was going to launch their village into the future.

“I think in future we will need this bigger bandwidth,” said Roger Cattin, a retired computer science professor who moved to Sollwitt a year ago.

“I like it very much that the local people are doing something to get this fast internet to our village.”

Read the full article on The Local Germany, here.

three young men hold signs with taxis all around

Frederik Roeder (centre) and fellow students protest anti-Uber taxi work stoppage in Berlin in June 2014. Courtesy: Frederik Roeder.

Uber has quickly become the most contentious technology company in Germany, challenging the taxi establishment as well as regulators across the country, as attempts to ban the chauffeur app leap from the municipal to the national stage. The following is an excerpt of an opinion piece I pitched and edited for The Local Germany.

As Uber and its chauffeur app continue to operate in Germany despite a national ban, one faithful user tells The Local why he became a fan of the company and the app from day one.

There are three major reasons why I prefer Uber to a regular taxi:

1 – Price: Uber Pop offers urban rides at a great price, cheaper than legacy taxis by at least 20 percent.

2 – Convenience: Uber is convenient; it’s easy to use and to pay with credit card.

3 – Quality and Safety: You can get a really nice ride in a fancy car and the app knows where you are and who is driving you.

Read the full opinion piece on The Local Germany, here.

crowds outside a large building on a sunny day

Crowds arrive at the Berlin exhibition grounds for the IFA technology show. September 2014.

Bendable televisions, a smartphone with an edge and the smart home that takes care of you — the IFA consumer electronics show burst onto Berlin’s exhibition grounds on Friday.

Crowds poured into the brand new City Cube Berlin to ogle the latest offerings from global electronics giant Samsung. With the new building all to themselves, Samsung blanketed visitors in a blue and white glow, showing off products as diverse as vacuums, washing machines and ovens to smartphones, virtual reality helmets and giant bendable televisions.

There was hardly anything Samsung didn’t have its high-tech fingers in.

Fitting, then, that Samsung CEO BK Yoon had the honour of delivering this year’s keynote speech to a packed house.

Read the full article on The Local Germany, here.

a senior couple walks down an empty pedestrian street

A senior couple walk down Delmenhorst’s main pedestrian promenade, amid a string of vacant storefronts.

Home to two-thirds of Germany’s population, many of its small cities and towns are struggling to revive their declining centres. The Local’s Tomas Urbina reports from Delmenhorst in Lower Saxony, as it tries to dig its way out of the economic doldrums.

It’s 2 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon and the downtown promenades in Delmenhorst, built for the bustle of pedestrian city life, are mostly deserted. A trail of signs in empty glass storefronts leads visitors through the main drag, calling out in muted desperation: “To Let.”

It wasn’t always like this, says 65-year-old Ewald Bieler, a civil engineer who retired last year after a career working for this northwestern Germany municipality with some 74,000 inhabitants.

Read the full article on The Local Germany, here.

hand holds iphone displaying Uber app

Berlin bans Uber app, taxis rejoice

Berlin has ordered the alternative taxi service Uber to halt its taxi app in the city or face steep fines.

The Berlin Senate handed down the order on Wednesday evening, demanding that the San Francisco-based Uber stop offering its services in Berlin through its popular smartphone app.

Uber, which now risks a €25,000 fine for each violation of the ban, immediately condemned the move as restricting consumers’ transport options.

Read the article on The Local Germany, here.

two elderly women in a small elevator

Ingeborg Koske, 86, and Christa Kaes, 83 in the elevator at Hansa-Ufer 5 in Berlin, August 2014.

Some came with canes, some with walkers, but they all came ready for a fight.

On Monday afternoon, elderly residents of the apartment block at Hansa-Ufer 5 gathered for a tenants meeting in the modest common room on the ground floor of the building on the banks of the Spree River.

In Berlin, it’s a familiar story. The rent spikes and those who can’t afford it are forced to move out.

In this case, the landlord — Swedish property giant Akelius — wants to renovate the building and surrounding property and wanted to charge 40-65 percent more rent. But this group of old folks wasn’t about to go quietly.

Read the full article on The Local Germany, here.

a man prepares caramel corn on a street corner

Selling on Santiago’s Alameda

The narrow streets and even narrower sidewalks of downtown Santiago give way to the breadth of the city’s main avenue, La Alameda. Ten lanes across, split down the middle by wide pedestrian islands, the Alameda is constantly bustling with activity, people surging onto the broad walkways from the metro line beneath.

It’s the nexus of business, government and transit for Santiaguinos moving through the capital’s downtown core. It’s also the perfect place for street vendors.

Click below to see more photos of the Alameda by day and by night.

Continue Reading…

a screen capture of the Science Pages cyber security document

Science Pages: Cyber security

Whether it’s government systems, industry secrets or your credit card information, cyber threats have never been greater. And with more of our everyday lives facilitated by networked computers, neither have the vulnerabilities.

But with growing threats at home and internationally making the news more and more frequently, how is Canada responding to the cyber threatscape?

The March 2013 edition of Science Pages was prepared to brief Members of Parliament, Senators and public officials in Ottawa about the state of cyber security in Canada, today’s threats and those on the horizon and the importance of balancing security with personal privacy rights.

I co-wrote this edition with Simon Liem and Carlton Davis for the Partnership Group for Science and Engineering (PAGSE) and the Science Media Centre of Canada.

Read Science Pages – Cyber Security:

Mel and Tyler

Mel Lefebvre and her partner, Tyler Bonnell, both face substantial student debt – but how much will the banks make off their student loans? Photo courtesy of Mel Lefebvre

Note: This article originally appeared on OpenFile Montreal, to which this blog post linked for the full text. Since September 2012 OpenFile’s website has been “on hiatus” and the news organization shut down due to financial insolvency. Therefore, the full text of article is now posted below.

Mel Lefebvre was on the way to starting her adult life.

After finishing her undergraduate degree in environmental studies, the Montreal native took up a graduate journalism program with an eye to writing in her field and starting to pay down her student debt. Then things took a twist.

She got pregnant. Or more precisely, she got pregnant with $23,000 in student debt.

Read more:

“It’s really worrisome on a personal level because I’m spending most of my paycheque paying back my debt,” said Lefebvre, who is expecting her baby next January.  “How am I supposed to make savings at the same time to make sure that I can pay the debt back, and be on maternity leave where I’m going to have a lesser income?”

“It’s scary.”

Though situations at graduation differ, Lefebvre’s debt portfolio is common among students who need financial assistance to pay for their post-secondary education: a student loan, a student line of credit and a credit card.

The most recent figures from the Quebec government’s student financial assistance agency, Aide financière aux etudes (AFE), show that in the 2009-2010 school year, students or former students were paying the interest on over $1.8 billion in loans.

Lefebvre got a loan of about $12,000 for her undergraduate studies, slightly less than the average undergraduate loan of $12,923 in 2010, the year she graduated. She also got a smaller $1,000 loan for her graduate program at Concordia University, plus $5,000 each on a line of credit and a credit card.

At 31-years-old, Lefebvre represents a growing cohort in the days of precarious employment: highly educated, highly indebted.

As with all government-backed student loans in Quebec, the interest on her $12,000 loan began accumulating a month after she completed her degree. After six months, she had to start repaying it.

Lefebvre’s lender, Royal Bank, estimates that at her current repayment rate, and at 3.5 per cent annual interest, she’ll have paid back the loan seven years from now, when her child is 6 years old.

Her $5,000 line of credit is likely to take even longer to pay back since she has a 4 per cent annual interest rate and no timetable, only paying “$50 now and then,” when she can.

Although Quebec’s banks are managing hundreds of millions of dollars in student loans each, it’s difficult to determine how much money they’re making from interest payments. Canadian banks aren’t required to publish that specific information, nor does the AFE collect it.

One indirect indicator is the amount of interest the government pays on student loans while students are still in school. The loans are only guaranteed by the government, not provided by them directly, a system in place since 1966. While students are still in school, the government pays the interest on their loans, provided by the banks.

In the low-interest climate of 2010, which persists today, Quebec paid $27 million in interest on $1.6 billion in loans. That’s a rate of return of about 1.7 per cent. Applied to the $1.8 billion in loans students were paying back in 2010, the rate would translate to about $30 million in interest for the banks.

Quebec’s top three lenders in 2010 were Desjardins ($957 million), Royal Bank ($247 million) and National Bank ($221 million), as reported by the AFE.

Desjardins was by far the biggest, holding nearly 60 per cent of the loans whose interest was being payed by the government in 2010. But the bank was unwilling to comment on how much they make from student loans. Royal Bank said that they wouldn’t release the figures for competitive reasons.

National Bank provided some insight by revealing that interest from student loans represents 0.008 per cent of their annual revenue. Applied to the total revenue for 2011 noted in their annual report (nearly $4.6 billion), student loan interest revenue stands at a measly $367,360. The figure could not be confirmed.

Personal finance expert and Globe and Mail columnist Rob Carrick has been researching and writing about student finances for years. Though the banks make some money from student loans, he doesn’t think they are a “profit centre” for the banks.

“They’re doing it because it’s needed and because it’s a way of establishing financial relationships with people that they can broaden out later on once people are through schooling, and start selling them products,” said Carrick.

As with tuition, student debt is higher outside Quebec. The national average weighs in at a bloated $27,000 for undergraduates.

But when it comes to student debt in Quebec, Carrick says the “banks aren’t the bad guys.”

So who is?

“You might argue that the real villain here is the job market,” said Carrick of the apparent dearth of “career-building first jobs.” The latest national youth unemployment rate of 14.3 per cent would seem to support his argument.

While students tattooed with red squares might argue the government is to blame, Lefebvre has focused on lightening her debt load, ridding herself of her high-interest credit card debt as quickly as possible. She also tackled her small graduate studies loan before the interest began to weigh on her.

But she still carries a $15,000 burden, working two part-time jobs and freelancing on the side, her partner still completing his doctorate with his own $10,000 debt on the way. In the meantime, the two prepare for their little bundle of joy to arrive free of charge, for now.

Student loans, student debt

Source: AFE 2009-2010 annual report




Number of undergraduate students with a student loan

46,844 (41%)

58% (source)

Number of graduate students with a student loan

12,020 (66.5%)

Total value of student loans held by Quebec banks

$1.6 billion

Total value of student loans in repayment mode

$1.8 billion

$15 billion (source)

Total interest paid by government on loans of students still in school

$27 million

Average undergraduate student loan debt


$27,000 (in 2009, source)

Average graduate student loan debt


Montreal youth unemployment rate

13% (source)

14.3% (source)