Members of the anti-poverty group ACORN rallied in front of city hall Tuesday to demand that big telecoms like Rogers and Bell not be included in Toronto’s fledgling municipal broadband program.
City council voted in February to approve ConnectTO, a program aimed primarily at improving internet access for low-income residents as well as connecting businesses to high-speed fibre-optic connections in underserved areas.
City staff are now in the process of launching four pilot projects based around municipal assets, such as public libraries or community centres already hooked up with fibre connections. The idea is to work with third parties, which could be private sector companies, to complete “last-mile” internet connections from those city-owned hubs to residents’ homes or businesses.
The original proposal calls for pilot projects in three priority areas: Jane-Finch in North York, and Malvern and the Golden Mile in Scarborough; staff have since said they are also considering a fourth location.
The city held public information-gathering sessions in May and June and said Tuesday it expects to issue tender documents, which will allow interested parties to bid for the work, for the first phase of the project in the coming weeks.
While the city’s executive council met virtually on Tuesday, about 15 to 20 ACORN members gathered in Nathan Phillips Square to call attention to the challenges marginalized groups, such as seniors on fixed incomes and low-income residents, continue to face when it comes to internet access and affordability.
ACORN says it wants companies like Bell and Rogers, the two major internet service providers (ISPs) in Toronto, to be barred from taking part in the municipal broadband project, but the city says its procurement policies mean everyone can have a chance to bid.
“We want them to stay away from ConnectTO,” said Marcia Stone, co-chair of the Weston chapter of ACORN. “We don’t want any interference from any of those companies because they’re not offering any benefit for the people we’re fighting for.”
Bell and Rogers did not specifically comment when asked Tuesday about whether they plan to participate in the procurement process, but spokespeople for both companies separately said they want to work with the city to promote internet access for all residents.
“We are continuing to make significant investments to meet growing demand and continue providing reliable connectivity across all parts of the city,” said Rogers’s Andrew Garas, who noted that the company’s Connected for Success program offers a range of low-cost internet options for eligible residents, including those living in subsidized housing.
Ellen Murphy, a spokesperson for Bell, also pointed to the company’s participation in a similar federal program, dubbed Connecting Families, and said “Bell is well positioned to work with the city as it moves forward on its strategy to address low-income internet access issues and looks forward to learning more about the role we can play.”
City spokesperson Deborah Blackstone said it has to follow purchasing bylaw and purchasing policies, which require the procurement process “to be conducted in a manner that is open, fair and transparent, (and) as such, we cannot discriminate suppliers (large or small).”
“All suppliers have equal access and opportunity to submit compliant bids for competitive solicitations,” Blackstone said.
The city’s ConnectTO proposal cited a report by the Ryerson Leadership Lab and Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which found that 2 per cent of households in the city have no home internet connection and almost half cited cost as the reason.
Ryan Murdock, an ACORN member from East York, said the ConnectTO program is a positive step, but ACORN wants to keep a spotlight on the issue.
“This is about continual pressure to force the city to listen to the people and not corporations,” he said.
During a public information session in May, one member of the public asked if the city would consider “disqualifying or somehow deranking large ISPs and telcos, given that they have not served low-income needs well.” But city officials did not rule out working with large ISPs on the project.
“At this time we’re open to all sorts of different solutions that can help us solve this issue together,” said Alice Xu, manager of digital city and connected communities in the technology services division, who also noted that the city could strike agreements with multiple ISPs for different sites.
During the May meeting, city staff said they do not yet have details on how pricing models will work. Xu also said that the plan for the pilot projects is not to connect entire neighbourhoods, but to target specific buildings that staff identify as needing improved access.
Article by Christine Dobby for the Toronto Star