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It’s time for Canada to close the digital divide

Hands holding tablet

By Judy Duncan

The only way Kelly can afford internet access at home is to take money out of her food budget. Like so many urban, low-income Canadians, she struggles to afford access to a service that is essential to education, employment and government services. If she could get internet access at home for $10 per month, Kelly explains, “[she] would buy healthier food and maybe shop someplace other than [second hand stores] for clothes.”

According to Kelly, who is a member of ACORN, access to the internet has become a basic necessity. “Everything is moving online. You don’t get hard copy tax forms in the mail anymore. And information about social services is moving more and more online.”

Digital access matters

Countries around the world increasingly recognize access to the internet as an essential tool for participation in a modern democratic society. Access to reliable high-speed internet has become an important means of participating in economic, social and civic life.

Home internet access, digital literacy and capacity are increasingly presumed or required by educators (for homework and access to learning materials), by employers (for job searching and employment applications), by governments (for information and services) and by businesses and social networks (for consumer and other social activities).

The digital divide

As civic, economic, educational and social environments become increasingly technological, a “digital divide” is emerging between high- and low-income Canadians.

Many low-income Canadians do not have internet access at home. According to Statistics Canada, 42% of households in the lowest income quartile – those which earn $30,000 or less – do not have home internet access. In contrast, nearly all households in the highest income quartile have internet access at home – a mere 2% do not.

Some public institutions, such as the public library, offer internet access at no cost to the user. This is important, but it is not enough. Consider what this looks like in practice: you have to pay $6 in round-trip transit fares to go to a public library; maybe you have to wait to use a computer for your 30-minute time slot; you have this short opportunity only on the days and during the hours that the library is open. It is not the same as having internet at home. It is not equal access.

Digital access is a right

Kelly is among the many ACORN members who believe access to high-speed internet is a right. The United Nations agrees. It now considers internet access a human right comparable with freedom of speech. Further, digital access is guaranteed as a legal right in several countries, and many more have publicly announced a commitment to achieving universal broadband access for all citizens.

Canada is not among them. In fact, we are the only G7 nation without a national broadband plan.

It’s time for us to close the digital divide.

What ACORN members say about digital access

ACORN Canada recently surveyed its members and found that 83.5% of respondents described the price of home internet as “extremely expensive.” Their responses break down as follows:

  • 67 people: “Extremely high; I can barely afford it”
  • 232 people: “Extremely high; I can’t afford it, but because I need it, I take money out of my budget for other items”
  • 30 people: “Extremely high and I can’t afford it, so I cancel my service from time to time” or “So expensive that I cannot afford it”“As someone with a disability, the internet is essential in accessing disability supports. The internet is often the only contact point for companies and venues and I need that information to determine if they are accessible and/or can accommodate me. Also, things like paratransit bookings are often only done online.” – Sarah, Toronto, ON“My children’s school WILL NOT OFFER the option of getting important notices on paper and will only communicate updates by email. I have no recourse in this matter and must have an email account I can check regularly. Without internet one cannot meet the expected level of communication and will miss out on many opportunities.” – Tifarah, Coquitlam, BC

What can we do to ensure digital access for everyone?

Here are just a few comments by ACORN members in the survey that highlight this digital divide:

  • “As someone with a disability, the internet is essential in accessing disability supports. The internet is often the only contact point for companies and venues and I need that information to determine if they are accessible and/or can accommodate me. Also, things like paratransit bookings are often only done online.” – Sarah, Toronto, ON
  • “It would save me a significant amount of time and energy and allow me to be a competitive player in the process of applying for employment. The time and energy I would save not having to go to the library would allow me to prepare healthy meals and eat at home which helps me to maintain my blood sugars, save money, eat healthier and feel better.” – Kim, Coquitlam, BC
  • “My children’s school WILL NOT OFFER the option of getting important notices on paper and will only communicate updates by email. I have no recourse in this matter and must have an email account I can check regularly. Without internet one cannot meet the expected level of communication and will miss out on many opportunities.” – Tifarah, Coquitlam, BC
  • “As my child gets older (she’s seven right now), more and more of her special education lessons will require the internet. Once she learns how to read and write by herself she will need [internet] access to further her learning, and I worry that she’ll fall behind because I can’t afford anyone’s rates.” – Wilma, Scarborough, ON

Our campaign includes leadership development and planning with low- and moderate-income community members. We are advocating for $10/month high-speed internet (15 megabits/second or equivalent to the high-speed available in the area), as well as subsidized computers, for all individuals and families who are below the Low Income Measure (LIM).

ACORN Canada has partnered with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre to create the Affordable Access Coalition (AAC) to develop an official submission and participate in the CRTC’s public consultations. The coalition includes the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN Canada); the Consumers’ Association of Canada (CAC); the Council of Senior Citizens Organizations of British Columbia (COSCO BC); The National Pensioners Federation (NPF); and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC).

Competition among internet providers may have once been considered a solution to bridging the digital divide. Unfortunately, this competition has failed to lower the price of home broadband access. The market in Canada is controlled by a small group of firms and prices remain prohibitively high for many low-income families.

Recently, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) launched a major initiative “to ensure that Canadians have access to world-class telecommunications services that enable them to participate actively in the digital economy.” This review, which started in June 2015, has three phases. At ACORN, we believe that the Canadian government must enact regulations to ensure that low-income families have affordable access to high-speed internet at home. ACORN members have launched a campaign targeting the federal government and the CRTC to create a mechanism that ensures home broadband prices are affordable for low-income families. It’s time to take these steps towards closing Canada’s digital divide.

— ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) Canada is an independent national organization of low- and moderate-income families, with more than 70,000 members organized into 20 neighbourhood chapters in nine cities across Canada. ACORN believes that social and economic justice can best be achieved with a national active membership who are invested in their organization and focused on building power for change. To get involved email: [email protected]

 

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