Hundreds of thousands of low-income seniors and families will soon benefit from $20-per-month high-speed internet as part of a partnership between the federal government and more than a dozen internet service providers, CBC News has learned.
Families receiving the maximum amount under the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) and seniors receiving the maximum under the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) will be eligible for internet with speeds of up to 50 megabits-per-second (Mbps) and 10 Mbps upload, or the fastest available speed in their region.
An announcement is expected on Monday, a government source says.
Fourteen internet service providers, including Bell, Rogers and Telus, are contributing to the initiative.
The move, part of the government's Connecting Families Initiative, has been branded Connecting Families 2.0. It both upgrades and expands what the government previously offered with Connecting Families 1.0. Under that plan, announced in 2017, families receiving the CCB could get access to internet for $10 a month.
Data allotment will also increase to 200 gigabytes per month under 2.0.
The $10-a-month plan will still be available to those who want it.
Data from the Canada Revenue Agency and Employment and Social Development Canada suggests that more than 800,000 households receiving the CCB and hundreds of thousands more receiving the GIS could be eligible. Eligible households will receive a letter from the government containing an access code that can be used to sign up through a secure portal.
The government has set a goal to connect 98 per cent Canadians to high-speed Internet by 2026 and 100 per cent by 2030.
News welcomed, but more help needed: advocates
Having access to the internet at home changed Ray Noyes's life.
The 66-year-old from Ottawa is a member of ACORN, a group that advocates for low- and moderate-income people, and he didn't have the internet for the first year of the pandemic — a time when voices on his TV or radio would emphasize how essential access is.
"I was constantly hearing about how important it is during the pandemic not to be isolated," he said.
"I was told again and again how important it was to have the internet to avoid social isolation, which is considered very bad, and I found that very frustrating."
Noyes was eventually able to get home access to the internet through Rogers' Connected for Success program. He said it's helped him significantly, including with his bipolar disorder and depression.
"It's been a big difference, and it's done my mood a lot of good," he said.
While Noyes welcomes Connecting Families 2.0, he said he's concerned that the program won't cover all low-income seniors and families — and that those it already covers under the $10-per-month program might not be able to afford the increased cost for faster internet.
"We're concerned that the families who are already in the program be grandfathered in and get that higher speed," he said.
Marion Pollack, the board president of Vancouver's 411 Seniors Centre Society, said she shares his concerns.
While she said the upgraded program is a "very important first step," she wants to see it expanded to all low-income seniors — not just those receiving the maximum amount under the GIS.
"That's a small minority of low-income seniors," Pollack said.
"With it only being limited to those seniors receiving the maximum GIS, we're keeping a whole bunch of other seniors on the wrong side of the digital divide."
Pollack said internet access is essential to getting seniors information about COVID-19 vaccines, allowing them to fill out government forms digitally and making it easier for them to stay in touch with family and friends.
But she also wants to see government programs to train seniors on internet skills, including how to protect themselves from online scams, and to provide refurbished or new tablets and computers for low-income seniors.
Pollack said her centre saw how essential it is to have access to the internet and digital skills when British Columbia introduced its vaccine passport program.
"We were assisting seniors every day in filling out the vaccine passport," she said.
Annie Kidder, executive director of the Toronto-based public education advocacy group People For Education, also welcomed the news.
She said online learning during the pandemic has shown that internet speed and quality is an equity issue.
"If you had two kids at home learning online or interacting with teachers online, if you had glitchy, slow internet, it was a huge problem," Kidder said.
"It means that in a classroom, there's not that feeling of a divide between who has the better equipment or the faster internet or the easier access, and who doesn't."
But Noyes said he's not sure the government is on track to meet its target of getting all Canadians online by the end of the decade.
"It might not be enough, fast enough," he said.
Article by Richard Raycraft for CBC News