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Bridging the Digital Divide

How to Ensure Internet Access Is a Reality for All

By Katy Anderson

Canadian telecommunications companies are gearing up to implement 5G, the next generation of wireless technology, and connect our consumer goods—everything from cars and watches to kitchen appliances—online. The innovations are so dazzling that it’s easy to forget that many people in Canada lack basic access to the Internet.

According to the latest data from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), 13% of households in Canada don’t have Internet access at home, and 12% of households don’t have a mobile phone. This “digital divide” is leaving the country’s most vulnerable behind in our online revolution. The impact of having no Internet access helps the rich stay rich and makes life harder for low-income, rural and northern people.

Conceptual illustration of the digital divide, using a WiFi symbol and a starlit northern sky.

People commonly assume that Internet access is a luxury rather than a must-have. But the web isn’t just for video games and Netflix. It’s increasingly necessary for finding and applying for jobs, accessing health services, getting important information (such as emergency alerts), contacting government officials and participating in society.

For students, having reliable Internet access can mean the difference between earning good grades and failing to complete routine homework assignments, either because research materials are out of reach or because assignments must be submitted online.

The good news is that the CRTC, our federal telecom regulator, named high-speed broadband Internet access as a basic service for all Canadians in 2016. The CRTC put it on the same level as electricity and phone service—things so essential to daily life that the government has a responsibility to step in and ensure access. The bad news is that the federal government has done little to turn this requirement into a reality.

While programs such as Connect to Innovate, a federal plan to invest $500 million to bring rural and remote communities online, are a step in the right direction, they don’t go far enough. Handing out funds piecemeal is subject to abuse by politicians who search for votes in their ridings during election campaigns and is not the comprehensive plan needed to ensure that everyone in Canada can take advantage of the 21st-century economy.

What’s needed is a national broadband strategy. The federal government has repeatedly said that the Internet should be at the centre of our cultural and economic future. Yet, even in 2019, many people are offline because the Internet is too expensive or simply unavailable where they live. Internet infrastructure is lacking in northern and many rural communities, where the choice is often between using a satellite provider and having no service at all and where satellite service can be prohibitively expensive and wildly unreliable. In rural areas, choice can be limited to one or two options; Internet service providers are free to charge some of the highest prices in the industrialized world for mobile and home Internet access.

Indeed, no matter where you live in Canada, mobile data rates are absurdly high, and overage fees routinely cost $70 or more per gigabyte. For struggling individuals and families who must choose between home Internet and mobile service, most choose to have a mobile phone. Living without one has become an obstacle to success in today’s world. Meanwhile, mobile data usage continues to soar by some estimates as high as 10% year over year. To top it all off, a recent report by Tefficient, a telecom analysis firm, showed that Canadian companies make some of the highest profits on the lowest amounts of data.

It’s time for the government to step in. A national broadband strategy needs to include a detailed plan that explains how to roll out and fund Internet infrastructure in communities that don’t have it. The strategy also needs to address the lack of competition in the country’s telecom industry. One possible solution is to allow mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) into the market. MVNOs are smaller companies that rent space from larger networks and sell connectivity to customers. Allowing MVNOs has led to lower prices in the United Kingdom as well as in larger countries such as Australia and France, both of which face some of the same weather and population density challenges that Canada does.

When taken care of, the Internet can function like a giant library, allowing access to vast amounts of knowledge and levelling the playing field for all. But this utopian vision of the Internet only works when everyone has access to it.

Katy Anderson is a former journalist who works as a digital rights campaigner. She specializes in access-to-the-Internet issues at OpenMedia, a non-profit that works to keep the Internet open, affordable and surveillance-free. She studies telecom policy at the University of Calgary.

Reprinted from Freedom to Read Kit 2019.