Way back in 2001, former federal industry minister Brian Tobin argued that the government should spend $4 billion to make sure households across the entire country had access to the internet.
That would have been a bargain basement deal considering this country’s telecom regulator, the CRTC, estimates that it would now cost tens of billions of dollars to do so. But, sadly, the Chrétien government of the day didn’t bite.
Now, eight years after a UN agency called for all governments “to develop a concrete and effective plan of action to make the internet widely available, accessible and affordable to all segments of the population,” that still isn’t the case in Canada.
Indeed, according to a study released recently by the advocacy group, ACORN Canada, the high cost of internet access is still leaving low-income families behind.
That must change. And the upcoming federal election campaign should provide a forum for all federal parties to discuss this important issue and commit to ensuring all households have access to the internet at affordable prices.
After all, the ACORN survey found that only 80 per cent of respondents with household incomes of $30,000 or lower had internet service compared to 96 per cent with incomes of $60,000 or more.
That’s better than the digital divide Statistics Canada reported on in 2012. At that time only 58 per cent of Canadian households with lower incomes had home internet access.
But it’s not good enough.
As ACORN rightly points out in its report, all Canadians need online access to apply for jobs, complete school work, download government forms, pay bills and fight the scourge of loneliness by connecting with family and friends.
“As essential services become increasingly digitized, it is vital that low and moderate income citizens are not left behind,” the report says.
The organization is not alone in making that argument.
In 2016, the CRTC declared high-speed internet access a “basic service.” In doing so it noted that the 18 per cent of Canadians who didn’t have reliable access to the internet were being unjustly disadvantaged.
It then addressed the digital divide between urban and rural citizens by setting high-speed targets for service delivery while establishing a $750 million fund to build infrastructure in remote communities over the next five years.
But it did not address the digital divide between the rich and poor. It could have done so by mandating a $10-per-month high speed internet package for low-income families. But it did not.
That is unacceptable. As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has argued, an internet connection is “a basic human right, like access to health care or water.”
That is why ACORN is calling for the federal government to expand the scope of its Connecting Families program.
The program, which the Trudeau government introduced in 2017 to deal with digital inequality in Canada, helps families that receive the maximum Canada Child Benefit get connected for $10 a month.
But as ACORN argues, seniors and single people should also be included in any program that helps connect the poor.
The fact is, this country once recognized that the telephone was an essential service and made sure it was affordable. And the CRTC has even mandated that companies provide so-called “skinny,” affordable cable packages for low-income families.
Now it’s time to make sure all Canadians are able to connect to the internet.
Source: Toronto Star Editorial Board