Toronto Star: Internet should be affordable for everyone: Editorial

Imagine trying to find a job, use a government service, sign up for a course or stay in touch with friends and family without ready access to the Internet.

It would be close to impossible. Society has gone online, and anyone without reliable, fast Internet service risks being left in the dust.
For too many low-income people, that’s exactly what’s happening. Either they do without, and find they can’t fully participate in public life. Or, as the advocacy group ACORN described this past week, they pony up for Internet while making a cruel trade-off with other basics like food and rent.
This is part of the infamous “digital divide” that separates those who are fully part of the online world and those who have fallen behind. In Canada in 2012, 98 per cent of the wealthiest households had fast Internet connections at home, compared with only 58 per cent of those with incomes of less than $30,000. Children are potentially among the biggest losers, unable to keep up at school.

ACORN, a national group that speaks for poorer families, has been campaigning for government and industry to make available a basic $10-a-month high-speed home Internet service for people living below the Statistics Canada low-income measure. It’s high time for the national regulator, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), to listen and take action to make that a reality across the country.

The CRTC has scheduled a round of hearings starting on April 11 to study issues related to affordability and accessibility of Internet services. Closing the digital divide should be high on its agenda, and a big step in that direction would be to declare high-speed home Internet to be a “basic service” that should be available to all Canadians.
One way to do that would be to set up a fund financed out of industry profits that would be used to subsidize low-cost basic Internet packages for low-income people. That would build on older models that helped to make sure telephone service reached remote areas back in the day when seeing that everyone was in reach of a phone was also seen as part of basic social equity.
Certainly, low-cost Internet service is no frill these days. And telling low-income families to go to the local library is hardly a fair solution. Especially for kids struggling to keep up with homework (not to mention being part of online networks that dominate the lives of young people), being deprived of broadband at home amounts to being a second-class citizen of the digital world.
A survey carried out by ACORN found disturbing evidence that parents are skimping on other things to afford home Internet, or just doing without. Lack of access, ACORN spokesperson Alejandra Ruiz Vargas told the Star this week, “leads to social isolation because you can’t connect with your friends and relatives. And it leads to poverty because you can’t look for jobs or fill out job applications.”
To their credit, some companies have taken steps toward closing the gap. In 2013, for example, Rogers Communications, Compugen Inc. and Microsoft Canada began offering high-speed Internet at $9.99 a month and low-cost computers to tenants in Toronto Community Housing.
Some 10,000 households are benefiting from that plan, but many others are left out. And in the end, even such a well-meaning program amounts to charity; closing the digital divide should be a matter of public policy, not left to the generosity of individual providers.
Canada has some catching-up to do in this area. Fifteen or so years ago, we were near the top of the rankings for advanced economies in terms of affordability and accessibility of Internet services, as measured by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Now, says OpenMedia, an independent group that campaigns to keep the Internet open and affordable, we pay comparatively high prices for so-so services. “Canada is back of the pack,” says OpenMedia’s Josh Tabish.
It’s expensive to build state-of-the-art networks in a sparsely populated country like Canada. But we’ve also slipped because many of our competitors have invested more heavily in new information networks. At the same time, there hasn’t been consistent pressure from Ottawa to make fast and accessible broadband service a major national focus.
Under the Harper government, there was a push toward more consumer-friendly telecom policies, and the head of the CRTC, Jean-Pierre Blais, has shaken up the incumbents. Blais has also said he foresees the day “when universal access to broadband” will be considered a vital basic service.
There’s an opportunity here for the new Liberal government to take the lead and make high-speed, accessible and affordable Internet services a priority for reasons of both economic competitiveness and social justice.
Oddly, the Liberals’ voluminous campaign platform did not mention upgrading Internet access. Such a priority would fit well into the government’s push for more open government and fairness, as well as with its stated intention to make Canada’s economy more innovative and productive.
The Liberals, through the minister of innovation, science and economic development, Navdeep Bains, should pay close attention to the renewed push for universal broadband access. The Internet should be a tool to build a fairer society, not another barrier to progress for those falling behind.

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