Just when Toronto’s low-income residents were counting on the city to create a publicly owned and managed municipal broadband network, the city stepped back from its commitment to ConnectTO.
Despite the city’s recognition in January of the exorbitant prices people face for internet access, the executive committee, chaired by Mayor John Tory, said building a public network would mean duplicating what private telecoms provide and directed Lawrence Eta, the city’s chief technology officer, to report back to the committee in 2023 for a progress update on the ConnectTO program.
Toronto ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) members have been fighting for affordable, high-speed internet since 2013 and wanted the committee to fast-track the move to help bridge the gap in digital equity.
A 2019 ACORN survey found more than 35 per cent of people had to make sacrifices to get internet access. Last year, and again this year on May 4, ACORN members presented their views to the executive committee.
Beulah Paul, an ACORN member from East York told her story.
“With COVID, I was forced into isolation,” said Paul. “Physically I was fine, but what about my mental health? I was gifted a granddaughter just before the pandemic, but I was able to see her grow only because of the internet. If there was no internet, my spirit would have just withered. Earlier, I had a low-speed internet because that’s what I could afford.”
Kiri Vadivelu, another ACORN member, reiterated the need. “I had to attend an eviction hearing during the pandemic,” Vadivelu said. “I have a publicly shared internet in my building and if the internet was disconnected during my hearing, I would have not been able to present my case at the landlord and tenant board hearing.”
Canada’s internet services are a patchwork of plans without a universal program that can easily be adapted to support all low-income people.
In November 2018, ACORN Canada successfully lobbied the federal government to create the Connecting Families program to help low-income Canadian families get access to affordable internet. Through this initiative, internet service providers participate voluntarily, without government subsidy, to offer $10 a month home internet packages with at least 10 MBps download speed and 100 GB of data usage.
According to the program’s website, a total of 220,000 families and seniors can benefit from the program. This limit exists primarily because the program is heavily dependent on the telecoms to provide the service.
Last month, the federal minister of innovation along with the ministers of seniors and rural development announced the expansion of the program to include low-income seniors. But several issues have plagued the first phase of the program.
First, it is only available to families that receive the maximum Canada Child Benefit.
Second, there is a limit to how many of those families can benefit. Earlier, it was limited to 200,000 families, but now this number also includes low-income seniors who receive the maximum Guaranteed Income Supplement.
Third, participation of telecom companies is voluntary leaving it up to companies to dictate the number of people they can serve instead of the government ensuring people who are struggling have internet access.
And finally, the internet speed of 10 MBps is too slow, forcing many families to opt out. It does not allow people to live stream or families with multiple children to use the internet at the same time. Internet speed is critical, especially when schools moved online and where some students continue to learn.
Because of all that, uptake was low in the first phase with only 55,000 families signing up for the program by August 2020.
Phase two has been better, offering internet at 50/10 MBps for $20 a month and 200 GB data. But it, too, is limited to families receiving the maximum Canada Child Benefits and seniors who receive the maximum Guaranteed Income Supplement. Again, not all those who qualify are eligible as space in the program is limited given the dependence on voluntary participation of telecoms.
As of March 29 the program has sent 175,000 letters with access codes to families and 133,000 letters to seniors. Recipients have to enrol quickly or they may be out of luck because of limited spots. And even if they are able to register, they will only reap the benefit if the telecom serves their area.
The program has the means to subsidize internet access for 220,000 families and seniors, but that represents just 10 per cent of all low-income families and seniors in Canada, according to StatsCan figures.
Not only does the program leave out many low-income families and seniors, it also doesn’t include people with disabilities who have no access the internet.
Toronto needs a city-owned and controlled broadband network that operates as a public utility and supplies affordable internet to all homes. It also needs to provide free Wi-Fi in all city-owned parks, facilities, and buildings including Toronto Community Housing buildings.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is the dire need for affordable, high-speed internet — for all.
Alejandro Gonzalez Rendon, is a member and co-chair of the downtown chapter of Toronto ACORN.
From the Toronto Star