A group of advocates, organizations and researchers called upon the government to implement affordable internet policies during the virtual Day of Action for Affordable Internet, March 16.
The day of action involved multiple panels discussing internet affordability, competition, rural internet access, government policy and more.
Laura Tribe, executive director of grassroots organization OpenMedia, said the internet, already increasingly an important part of daily life and recognized as a human right, has become a “lifeline” during COVID-19 while remaining a privilege, as disadvantaged Canadians continue to struggle to access the internet.
She mentioned the recently announced merger of telecom companies Rogers and Shaw, news that is raising concerns about competition and pricing.
“It clearly shows that the issue is not stagnant,” said Tribe. “Every single day that this remains unaddressed the digital divide deepens.”
With children doing school through video classes and parents working from home, and an array of supports and services moving online, it’s harder and harder for families to make ends meet while also meeting their connectivity demands, she said.
That’s why OpenMedia and the other organizations involved in the day of action asked citizens to sign petitions, and email and call their political representatives, to ask for policies that would help bridge the digital divide, not only during the pandemic but for good.
During a panel involving affordable internet advocates from across Canada, Ray Noyes of ACORN Canada, which has been asking for $10 a month internet for low-income people for years, described his experience during the pandemic without internet.
Until recently, Noyes did not have home internet, as his Ontario Disability Support Program payment didn’t allow for the cost. He recently got access to a tablet with some data provided by a community health centre and said he’s finally been able to connect with his family. But if he’d had that access throughout the pandemic, he could have remained in touch with them and accessed other services as well, he said.
Noyes noted that the United States recently rolled out a $50 monthly subsidy to help low-income families afford internet during the pandemic and he wants to see Canada follow suit.
“We need the internet now,” he said, adding that while access to decent internet is considered a right, it’s not yet a widespread reality in Canada.
Panellists described the struggles of parents with school-age children and of seniors during the pandemic, noting that the pandemic accelerated a digital shift that was already exacerbating inequality before COVID-19.
“Unaffordable internet continues to be a huge barrier that is magnified for people experiencing poverty, people with disabilities, new Canadians, people with low literacy, people in rural settings and Indigenous communities,” said panelist Kate Fish of PovNet.
It’s not just about cost, but also about speed, noted Rama Fayez of ACORN Canada, as many people who do have internet don’t have speeds that can support the increased usage during the pandemic. Many low-income people are forced to choose between decent internet and other necessary costs, he said: “It boils down to, you pay for your food or you pay for your internet.”
Sam Andrey, director of policy and research at the Ryerson Leadership Lab, presented the latest research on internet accessibility and coverage in Toronto, contrasting it with cross-Canada data and the country’s goal of having 50-mbps internet available for everyone.
Currently, 87 per cent of Canadians have access to at least 50-mbps internet, he said, but only 35 per cent of First Nations reserves have the same. There’s only 46 per cent coverage in rural communities overall, he said, and zero per cent in the territories.
Based on a survey in late 2020, Andray said two per cent of people living in Toronto don’t have home internet, especially older people and low-income people. As well, 38 per cent don’t have more than 50 mbps of speed, he added.
Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law, said the Rogers-Shaw merger “will quite clearly result in reduced competition in several major markets and higher prices.”
Geist said he thinks the Canadian government has “lost its way” when it comes to internet policy, not only in terms of access and affordability, but also competition, privacy and other issues.
In a panel discussing small internet service providers and competition, TekSavvy vice-president Andy Kaplan-Myrth said it’s well-known that wholesale prices, the prices large telecom companies charge companies like TekSavvy to use their infrastructure, are too high — the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission itself has said so.
If those prices were lower, small internet providers could offer lower prices to customers, forcing the big companies to do the same, said Kaplan-Myrth.
“Competition is a sustainable way of disciplining the pricing of the big companies,” he said.
Article by Rosa Saba for the Toronto Star