A plan to create a "city-owned high-speed municipal broadband network" that would have made internet access affordable for low-income Torontonians won't be going to council next week after Mayor John Tory's executive committee voted it down on Wednesday.
The committee unanimously approved a revised plan for the city program known as ConnectTO, which will go to council on May 11.
Committee members voted to remove a recommendation asking council to endorse a network that would "help ensure equitable access to broadband internet for residents regardless of their financial means or circumstances." Now, the plan will focus on increasing high-speed internet primarily among city sites.
The vote came after public deputations calling on the city to provide affordable internet access for all.
"The internet is essential," said Earl LeBlanc, a senior and a member of Toronto ACORN, a group that represents low- and middle-income people.
"Families need connection to the internet and it's no longer a luxury," LeBlanc told the committee.
LeBlanc said the internet is crucial to access government services as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. He said, for example, he recently needed legal advice to fight a "bogus five-year-old parking ticket" and he was able to get pro bono advice online.
"I do everything online currently, my banking, my bill payments," he said.
"People of Toronto can enjoy a better life with family via the internet."
Tory declares conflict of interest
Tory, who chairs the committee, did not take part in the discussion on Wednesday after he declared a conflict of interest due to his "continued involvement" with the Rogers family, trust and companies. Rogers provides broadband internet, among other services.
The city would have set up the affordable network with the help of internet service providers and the city's fibre optic network. Several other deputants, the majority of whom were also members of Toronto ACORN, agreed with LeBlanc, telling the committee the cost of the internet services is high and people need them for everyday activities.
Kiri Vadivelu said ConnectTO in its original form was important because a publicly owned broadband network would have made the internet affordable. Reading a news report that said the plan is being revised is sad, he said.
"That is very disappointing. I was hurt to hear that," he said.
Coun. James Pasternak, who represents Ward 6, York Centre, acknowledged that there is a real need in Toronto for high speed internet that is reasonably priced.
"It's vital for a job search, it's vital for education, for entertainment, for shopping, to be part of the wider community. And its role as a critical piece of infrastructure was particularly acute and apparent during the pandemic," he said.
City looking to bridge digital divide later, official says
Lawrence Eta, the city's chief technology officer, explained the new focus of ConnectTO to the committee.
"The city is not proposing to be an internet service provider. The city is proposing to utilize its existing assets to leverage interconnection and provide services for critical and essential services that the city is conducting," Eta said.
"And the city is looking to continue to develop the ConnectTO program as a way of excess capacity to help bridge the digital divide in the future."
Eta said later in the meeting that staff could make a business case for a municipal broadband network in two to three years.
When the city introduced the idea of a municipal broadband network in January 2021, it said in a news release: "This network would use city assets such as existing fibre assets, buildings, lights, sidewalks and boulevards to address connectivity in underserved areas using a city-wide high-speed internet network, which will be delivered to homes and businesses by a private sector partner.
"Access to the network will be offered to qualified service providers, at a fair price, to generate revenue, which will be re-invested back into communities to expand service to areas without access and help lower internet costs for vulnerable Torontonians."
Article by Muriel Draaisma for CBC News Toronto