Lockdowns and social distancing measures have moved one in three jobs and nearly all learning online. However, too many Canadians still do not have a home internet connection or access to digital devices. Public internet access through libraries, community centres and Wi-Fi hotspots are essential to those who are otherwise disconnected from critical online services. The fifth part of the Ryerson Leadership Lab’s Overcoming Digital Divides workshop series explored how we can better support our public internet infrastructure and expand digital access to marginalized communities that have been left out of our pandemic response.

The critical role of public libraries

The pandemic brought to light the critical role of public libraries in providing a range of services that are essential to people’s daily lives, said Pam Ryan, director of service development and innovation at the Toronto Public Library. More than half of Ontarians who would not otherwise have access to technology rely on a public library to access the internet, with rates higher (up to 68 per cent) for older adults. Low-income individuals, those living in community shelters and newcomers learning English also depend on public libraries to access government services, enjoy digital entertainment and connect with family and friends.

When libraries were closed during pandemic lockdowns, many people went months without even being able to check their email, said Christina de Castell, chief librarian and CEO of the Vancouver Public Library. She described seeing people outside libraries, leaning against the walls, desperately trying to connect to the library’s public Wi-Fi.

Many Canadians also rely on public libraries to access digital devices needed to connect to the internet. Some who do have internet access at home might lack the secondary devices, such as printers, that they need to complete government applications and fill out online forms. Libraries can also serve ESL learners through touchscreen devices that facilitate the use of keyboards in different languages.

The transition to virtual setups during the pandemic also motivated previously disconnected individuals to learn more about the library’s digital services, such as e-books and multimedia entertainment, and how to navigate library devices — developing a new group of committed and enthusiastic digital learners, especially among older adults.

Public libraries swiftly responded to the pandemic through emergency initiatives. For example, the Toronto Public Library created an internet connectivity program that provides a free laptop and Wi-Fi device with a two-year unlimited data plan to community agencies working with individuals in urgent need of home internet. But the closure of many libraries during the pandemic put those who rely on libraries for digital access at a greater risk of isolation, and revealed how our digital-equity solutions have not sufficiently focused on providing home internet to ensure individuals are never disconnected from digital access. Increased home internet access will reduce pressure on public libraries, reserving library devices for those who need them most, de Castell said.

The negative impact of library shutdowns on those without home internet revealed just how critical public internet access is for many Canadians.

Public internet hotspots: Protecting users’ privacy and safety

Municipalities across Canada have also expanded public Wi-Fi services to more government buildings, town centres and recreational facilities. For example, in 2019, Vancouver expanded the number of free Wi-Fi hotspots from 80 to about 753, positioning the city’s free public Wi-Fi network as one of the largest in North America.

Île Sans Fil is a non-profit community network that coordinates free public Wi-Fi access through hotspots across Montreal. The organization has expanded access to the internet over the past 18 years to major cafés, hospitals and community centres, said its co-founder Michael Lenczner. Île Sans Fil targets civic, environmental and cultural community spaces to allow marginalized and vulnerable groups to stay informed about current events and engage in the political process, he said.

However, the rapid expansion of public internet also poses potential risks to users’ privacy and safety, particularly for vulnerable groups such as children. Requirements for content filtering at libraries vary across Canada and are sometimes regulated by the province or library board. Although library computers for children have some content restrictions, many libraries do not provide content filtering on most of their public computers to protect intellectual freedom, Ryan said.

The Toronto Public Library protects its users’ privacy by providing access to the Tor Browser, a free software that enables anonymous web surfing without revealing a user’s location or internet usage. Libraries across Canada have also developed digital privacy and security programs in partnership with community organizations to raise awareness and educate users on the risks of using public internet. As a signatory on the declaration of the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights, the Toronto Public Library is taking seriously its commitment to uphold data protection and security measures, Ryan said.

The role of municipal internet: The City of Toronto’s broadband plan

After the pandemic exposed the degree and impact of gaps in digital access, the City of Toronto committed to build a public digital infrastructure plan on principles of equity and inclusion, said Alice Xu, manager of the Connected Community and Smart City Program at the City of Toronto’s Technology Services Division. The ConnectTO program plans to leverage municipal resources to expand affordable, high-speed internet to underserved Torontonians, in part guided by the mapping work conducted by the Ryerson Leadership Lab and the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship. As part of the program, the city will create a municipally owned broadband network using the city’s fibre assets, buildings, lights, sidewalks and boulevards to connect underserved areas. In partnership with private-sector service providers, the city will offer connectivity plans at a fair price to generate revenue that will be re-invested into expanding digital access and low-cost service to vulnerable groups.

The ConnectTO program is based on three main pillars, Xu said:

  1. Positioning connectivity as an integrated priority in all the city’s physical and digital planning. For example, city planners should embed low-cost connectivity plans and Wi-Fi access in the design and planning phases of affordable housing projects.
  2. Creating social policies that address Toronto’s digital divide challenges by relying on evidence-informed consultations with researchers, community representatives, data scientists and peer countries.
  3. Investing in the physical infrastructure needed to provide affordable high-speed internet across Toronto by building a fibre backbone. In collaboration with organizations such as the Toronto Public Library and Toronto Transit Commission, the city will build its own digital infrastructure assets to control where connectivity flows and identify private-sector partners that are best fit to realize the city’s vision of equitable and affordable digital access.

The negative impact of library shutdowns on those without home internet revealed just how critical public internet access is for many Canadians. Enhancing our public internet infrastructure will require investing in digital library services, expanding the number of devices available to library users (such as computers, touchscreens and printers), enhancing digital literacy programs, and leveraging public assets to build connectivity infrastructure that can provide affordable internet for Canadians at all income levels. As more government services, work opportunities and educational programs continue to offer virtual options post-pandemic, many Canadians will continue to rely on public internet as a gateway to our increasingly digitized world.