Nasma Ahmed is a technologist working toward building more just and equitable futures. Toby Harper-Merrett has led information and communication technology for development (ICT4D) programs internationally and in Canada, particularly in the education sector, since before the iPhone.

Everyone in Canada should be able to use the internet to share information, connect with friends and family, do schoolwork, access government services, find work and do their job and, yes, enjoy a selection from the Sarah Polley oeuvre. But the chasm between those who do and do not have these capabilities will not be closed, filled or bridged by technology alone.

COVID-19 has underscored the consequences of that chasm, as inequities in Canadians’ ability to access digital technologies – the basis for everything from post-secondary education to contact tracing during the pandemic – have threatened to exacerbate social and economic inequities. We want to ensure an inclusive society and better health, education and prosperity outcomes for all.

What is currently viewed as the “digital divide” is based on two questions that are frequently confounded: one of internet access (does the service reach you?) and another of uptake (are you using the service?).

On the question of access, internet infrastructure across Canada is built through investment by facilities-based service providers and governments. Billions of Canadians’ dollars are being used to expand networks to the places they don’t already reach and upgrade technology to the next generation. If network infrastructure does not yet reach all Canadians, it should and it will. As MP Will Amos, member of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, has said, there is “violent agreement” that internet access is vital, pivotal, essential and basic. (Call it anything other than a right: we have a right to the outcomes, not the technologies.)

However, the issue of uptake cannot be addressed with cables, satellites and antennae. On their own, these risk amplifying digital inequity, widening divides. Instead, to address uptake, we must ask what bars people from using the services they do have access to?

Think of it like health care. In Canada, every citizen has access to health care, yet depending on their income, where they live and what they look like, the availability and experience of health services may differ. Social determinants have a direct impact on health outcomes. The same can be said for how we experience access to and uptake of internet services. As Amartya Sen writes in Development as Freedom, regardless of a person’s rights, what’s important is whether they are capable of exercising them.

The “digital divide” is at the intersection of other divides including sex, race, age, language, ability, education, income and location. The Charter of Rights protects Canadians from discrimination based on these factors, yet women, Black, Indigenous and people of colour, people living in rural and remote communities, those who are low-income and those living with disability are at higher risk of digital exclusion. Communities living at these intersections are more likely to face barriers in both access to and uptake of the internet.

Issues of digital equity are deeply rooted, connected and systemic. Innovation policy should not address them uninformed by their social determinants. It is essential to respond to divides with care; they existed prior to current technologies and can be exacerbated by new ones.

In a recent report, Alison Gillwald and Onkokame Mothobi shared their research findings on what happens “After Access.” They found, paradoxically, “as more people are connected … inequality is increasing not decreasing.” This means “connectivity alone will not be sufficient for countries to overcome the digital divide.”

Digital inequity in a crisis

In late March, Adam Gopnik wrote: “Crises take an X-ray of a city’s class structure.” The past months of the COVID-19 pandemic have proven that observation scales to regions, countries and the globe, and it certainly applies to the digital world. People who take up new technologies forge ahead, widening rather than closing divides. Innovation that isn’t inclusive becomes the agent of further inequity.

The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the need for more holistic and inclusive approaches to innovation investment. For example, digital devices, connectivity and skills are vital for Canadians to benefit from public education. For some learners who were able to connect to the internet only at school or in a public space, those options have been limited by the pandemic. Generous sectoral responses were initiated – for instance, many Internet Service Providers waived overage and data caps, didn’t disconnect accounts for non-payment, and donated devices and service plans to populations most at-risk of digital exclusion. Yet these measures were temporary and equity issues must be addressed at their core, so that we are better prepared for the next crisis.

According to a recent guidance document for governments from the UNESCO Chair in Internet and Communications Technology for Development: “One of the main lessons from responses to the outbreak of COVID-19 is that education systems across the world were unprepared for the changes that would be necessary to shift rapidly from a physical schools-based infrastructure to a widely dispersed online system of learning.” The document adds that “the provision of good public education is a crucial factor in building a successful economy and society…. However, such a vision must begin with a profound commitment by governments to begin by using technology to reach the unreached, and to ensure that the most marginalized are considered first in any proposed roll-out of digital technologies” (emphasis our own.)

Why don’t millions of Canadians benefit from internet uptake? This is about choices, or a lack thereof. The reasons why residents say they are not internet users can be reduced to quality of services, affordability of devices and connection, and digital literacy.

Internet quality measurement is complex. If internet infrastructure does reach you, does the quality of the available service limit the things you want to use it for? “Evaluation of internet performance should relate to human quality of experience,” Fenwick McKelvey, associate professor in Information and Communication Technology Policy at Concordia University, told us. “This means that speed is not the only factor.”

Affordability is the primary reason low-income households don’t have internet subscriptions. Many, including the International Telecommunication Union, have attempted to benchmark what portion of household budget is invested in telecommunication services. Most Canadians spend less than five per cent, while the lowest income – for example, people accessing disability benefits – can spend upwards of 10 per cent of their income, as shared within reports by ACORN Canada through its Internet For All campaign. This means families must navigate competing essential needs ranging from internet service to food and housing. This issue has only expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic, when an internet subscription has become the default way people engage with each other and their employment.

Additionally, digital literacy remains a significant barrier to uptake, especially as Canada’s population ages. Mack Rogers of ABC Life Literacy Canada has said: “The number of adult learners and seniors with access to the internet is growing significantly, but many of them don’t have the appropriate digital literacy skills to use the internet safely.”

A new approach to digital policy

Canada’s policy approach to internet pricing has historically been to subsidize the development of telecommunications infrastructure in less profitable markets with revenues from denser ones, encouraging competition through various regulatory levers. Though the pace sometimes resembles the Precambrian forces that shaped the same physical landscape, there has been progress.

Whether this approach remains the optimal one is the subject of some discussion. Internet subscription price comparisons abound. Many would agree, however, that the Canadian telecommunications market isn’t especially unfettered, given the government stage-setting and regulation shepherding it. Public dollars install miles of fibre-optic cable; public processes allocate bands of wireless spectrum; now public attention should turn to matters of uptake. Decentralizing the identification of target populations could produce coalitions involving municipalities, service providers and community organizations to deliver programs with the required social intelligence and impact.

These complex issues require innovation policies that acknowledge digital inequity doesn’t reflect an entirely, or even primarily, technological divide. A focus on equity would recognize that Canadian experiences are diverse, and solutions should be inclusive. Universal uptake of quality internet in Canada will have a multiplier effect; it will mean more of us can engage with and contribute to our communities.

As we try to build forward better from COVID-19, we suggest digital policies target more equitable outcomes by addressing the social determinants hindering innovation uptake.