The Broadbent Blog

It's time to close Canada's digital divide

kid.internet.steve_.ransom.jpgThe Harper government recently unveiled its plan to invest millions of dollars over the next three years to expand Internet access. 

Comparing the plan to the creation of the national railway and the opening of the Northwest Passage, the government proclaimed that, "access to the Internet is essential to create jobs, realize economic opportunities, and link Canadians to online services as well as far-off family members and friends."

Bold words are easy to put in a press release. Unfortunately, the reality for many low-income Canadians is it's simply too expensive to get online.

While the government has focused some resources on improving Internet access in rural areas, it's ignored a bigger more structural problem — the less money you have, the less likely you are to have access to the Internet.  

For example, nearly half of Canada's lowest income earners don't have broadband access, compared to 18% of the Canadian population as a whole. Sixteen to 24-year-olds are the heaviest users of wireless Internet services, but there's a huge gap in access for this group based on income too: for the quarter of highest income Canadians in this age group, 88.3 per cent use wireless Internet services. That number falls to 26.4 percent for the quarter with the lowest incomes. 

While the Internet is opening up a world of opportunity for many Canadians, children in low-income families are also falling behind. As the government notes, Internet access is essential to create jobs and realize economic opportunities. When a child trying to get ahead in school - or a young person trying to find a good job - can't afford that access, it hurts all of us.

Unfortunately, instead of improving access for low-income earners by helping them to tackle the financial barriers they face, the government continues to move in the wrong direction. In 2012, the government cut funding for the Community Access Program, which was designed to provide community access to the Internet for those who couldn't afford home access.

Meanwhile, other jurisdictions are taking steps to ensure that people aren't denied Internet access simply because they can't afford it. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission teamed up with cable and technology companies to launch Connect-to-Compete. The program includes a commitment from the cable companies to offer $10/month broadband Internet access to homes with children that are eligible for free school lunches. Families can purchase a refurbished computer for as little as $150.

There's no reason to leave low-income families on the wrong side of the digital divide. The CRTC is now reviewing the basic telecommunications services required by Canadians to participate fully in the digital economy.  

On Thursday, ACORN Canada members are calling on the federal government and the CRTC to ensure home broadband prices are affordable for low-income families.

Specifically, we are calling for households below the low-income measure to be able to access high-speed Internet for $10/month along with measures to ensure families can afford computers at a reasonable price.

If Internet access for all Canadians is to the 21st century what building the national railway was to the 20th, then we need to get to work now to ensure no one is left off the train, and everyone can afford to use it.

Marva Burnett is Chair of the ACORN Canada board. Click here take action on digital access.

Photo: Steve Ransom. Used under a creative commons BY-NS-SA-2.0 license.