People who live in big cities have easy access to high-speed Internet, right? Well, not necessarily. We look at the situation across the country.
It’s hard to imagine getting through a full-blown pandemic without having access to the Internet. But believe it or not, that’s the fate of many Canadians who lack the means to pay for the service, even if they do live in a big city. “The price is a problem for many of our members,” says Judy Duncan, head organizer at ACORN Canada, a community union with more than 130,000 members that focuses on direct action.
To put together the Barriers to Digital Equity in Canada research report, ACORN Institute Canada, which conducts research and gives training sessions, surveyed nearly 500 union members. They found that 20% of respondents with an annual income of $30,000 or less did not have home Internet, while only 4% of those with incomes over $60,000 were in the same situation.
More telling still was the fact that 72% of respondents said they didn’t have home Internet because the cost was too high. “That’s a huge factor,” says Duncan. “Some people said they had to go without other things, even food, to have [Internet] access.” The findings came as a big disappointment to Théodros Wolde, head of the ACORN Canada section in the Montreal borough of LaSalle. “The union has been campaigning for people living on low incomes to have Internet access for 10 years now,” he points out.
Participants stated that they mainly used the Internet to keep in touch with family and friends (sometimes via social media), for entertainment, and to stay informed. A previous study ACORN Canada conducted in British Columbia indicated that the Internet is particularly useful for finding health information. “This shows that the Internet really is an essential service,” says Duncan. “And that’s more and more the case since the start of the pandemic.”
Internet more important now than ever
Grim as the situation looked before the pandemic, it’s since grown worse. “With the closing of the libraries and the advent of distance learning, many households have been forced to get home Internet, even if they can’t really afford it,” says Duncan. “They have no choice now – everything is online. They need the Internet to fill in government forms, make medical appointments or take courses.”
Those who can’t afford home Internet also have trouble paying for a computer. This has become a real problem during the pandemic.
"A good proportion of the participants in our study had Internet access on a cell phone. But you need a computer to work at home or do home schooling. Sometimes you need more than one, because it’s not easy when family members have to share a single computer.” - Judy Duncan, head organizer at ACORN Canada
The study also reveals various problems with Internet connection speed. Nearly two in three participants complained about this, in fact. As a result of poor connection speed, they went over the coverage in their basic package and found themselves facing extra charges. “Right now, people who are working and doing home schooling need a high-speed Internet connection more than ever,” notes Duncan.
Some gaps in the program
You might think the federal government’s “Connecting Families” program, which gives people living on low incomes access to high-speed Internet service packages for $10 a month, would be helping to improve the situation. But Wolde feels it’s not yielding the anticipated results, since the service offered by participating companies is generally too slow. “According to the CRTC, every household should have access to unlimited broadband speed of at least 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload,” says Wolde. “But they don’t get high-speed for $10 a month, so they have to spend more to get the speed they need.”
Duncan points to other gaps in the “Connecting Families” program. “The companies get to decide for themselves what they’ll offer and set their own access criteria. As a result, we see enormous disparities. And the program may not be open to single people or seniors – a population that really needs it.” Wolde also deplores the fact that the program only gives citizens access to services from big companies, which are generally the most expensive.
The report concludes by making several recommendations. It suggests that the “Connecting Families” program be extended to meet the needs of all low-income families, and that Internet suppliers offer high-speed service to all Canadians living on low or modest incomes. “The world will continue to depend on technology,” says Duncan. “And if things don’t improve, we’ll keep on fighting to make sure that people on low or modest incomes have sufficient access to the Internet.“
A troubling situation in Toronto
The findings of a recent study conducted in mid-pandemic, “Mapping Toronto’s Digital Divide,” were similar to ACORN’s results. The report shows that of the 2% of Toronto households that are not connected to home Internet, half say it’s because of the cost, and 61% say their ability to access critical services and information has been affected. In addition, 38% of Toronto households report speeds that fail to meet the CRTC criteria – a situation that affects about half of all low-income households and people in the 60-and-over age group.
The study, Barriers to Digital Equity in Canada (ACORN Institute Canada, 2019), set out to identify major barriers to digital equity in order to give low-income Canadians a greater say in the debate on affordable Internet access. ACORN Canada members participated by completing a survey and asking 472 of their peers (mostly people living on low incomes) in 21 Canadian cities in five provinces to fill it in by phone or on the Internet. The leaders of different sections of the union then discussed the results. Bear in mind that ACORN Institute Canada is a charitable organization that uses research and training to address problems in low-income communities, while ACORN Canada is a community union that focuses on direct action and acts locally, organizing regular campaigns designed to defend the interests of low-income people and seniors on fixed incomes. ACORN Canada members, who are all volunteers, are assisted and supervised by association staff in carrying out their campaigns.
Article by Maryse Guénette for OC Magazine