As several provinces enter stricter lockdowns, and their residents face increased isolation, access to high-speed internet at home has become even more essential. Low-income individuals are less likely to have a high-speed home internet connection, yet they are also disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and in most need of staying connected. Making the internet more affordable requires policy solutions that transform our market-driven telecommunications system to expand internet access to those at the lowest income level.

Canada has taken a piecemeal approach to expanding internet access and adoption, rather than a national, strategic vision. The second part of the Ryerson Leadership Lab’s Overcoming Digital Divides workshop series explored what is needed during and coming out of the pandemic to enable affordable home internet connections for every Canadian.

Read about the first part of the Overcoming Digital Divides workshop here.

Data from Toronto Public Health continues to show that low-income individuals are most likely to contract COVID-19. Nearly half of the city’s COVID-19 cases (46 per cent) have occurred in individuals in the two lowest income brackets ($49,000 and under) — groups that represent less than 30 per cent of the population combined.

Although federal and provincial infrastructure funds have expanded physical internet infrastructure to some underserved communities, our pandemic management strategy needs to focus on making the internet more affordable. A recent study using data from 20 million mobile devices in the United States suggests that people are more likely to stay home if they can access high-speed internet there. Under our current system based on market-priced internet plans, low-income individuals are not able to afford home internet connection at the speeds they need to access health, social and employment opportunities.

Correcting affordability myths

Making quality internet in Canada affordable at every income level begins with a basic understanding of why individuals do not have high-speed internet connection at home. Low-income individuals do not intentionally choose to settle for a sub-optimal internet connection that does not meet their needs, said Erin Knight, access campaigns lead and digital rights campaigner at OpenMedia. Instead, they either lack access to the internet where they live, or they simply cannot afford a better connection. Almost half of households with an annual income of $30,000 or less did not have high-speed internet in 2018, and the top reason cited for lack of internet service is the cost of service and equipment.

Low-income families spend a greater proportion of their income on internet and mobile phone services, said Dionne Pelan, computer and drop-in programs co-ordinator at the University of British Columbia’s Learning Exchange. According to Statistics Canada, low-income households spend more than twice as much of their income on these services (5.4 per cent) compared to the overall average of 2.1 per cent. Pelan recounted working with community members in B.C. who heavily rely on public Wi-Fi and inadequate mobile connections to conduct basic tasks, such as booking medical appointments, accessing banking services and filling out government forms. High prices compel them to make difficult trade-offs between accessing the internet, continuing their education or taking care of their health amid a pandemic, Pelan said.

Making the internet more affordable

Initiatives that provide internet services at reduced prices to low-income individuals are a pivotal part of improving internet affordability in Canada. The federal government’s Connecting Families initiative provides internet services at $10/month for low-income families with children, according to Toby Harper-Merrett, executive director of Computers for Success Canada, which administers the program. Independent evaluators found that about 15 per cent of the program’s beneficiaries subscribed to the internet for the first time as a result of joining the program, he said.

However, internet subsidy programs are based on stringent eligibility criteria that exclude a large portion of low-income individuals in Canada. There are still approximately 3.4 million low-income individuals in Canada who may need the program and cannot access it because they do not meet the requirements to be eligible, such as receiving the maximum Canada Child Benefit, Knight said. Pelan mentioned that when children age out of the programs, some of their families must give up their internet access — sometimes forcing students to consider dropping out of university.

Internet subsidy initiatives also tend to target extremely low-income families, with arbitrary income cut-off levels that leave large swaths of Canadians without access, said Viveca Ellis, outgoing interim community organizer and leadership development co-ordinator at the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition. Moreover, some corporate initiatives — such as the Telus Internet for Good program or the Rogers Connected for Success program — target specific groups such as those receiving disability assistance or in community housing, leaving out those on regular income assistance who also need the internet to search for jobs, added Ellis. From a human rights perspective, access to online information also upholds and preserves Canadians’ access to other fundamental rights and freedoms, particularly during a pandemic when government services are increasingly delivered online, she said.

Setting ambitious targets for affordable internet in Canada

Ensuring affordable high-speed internet requires setting ambitious targets for home internet adoption, not just access to internet infrastructure, and then holding policy-makers accountable for policies and programs that meet the targets. For example, the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition is advocating for the federal government to subsidize $10/month internet for all individuals that fall below the Market Basket Measure poverty line and for all those accessing education.

Knight from OpenMedia pointed out that giving large, profitable corporations public financing to offer home internet subsidies, without requiring them to significantly change their business model, will not create real long-term affordability solutions. However, community-owned broadband networks in small cities across Canada, and especially in the United States, allow communities to design networks that respond to their unique needs and deliver services at cheaper prices without having to focus on the bottom line. Knight said the Canadian government’s Universal Broadband Fund is focused too heavily on public-private partnerships, with little room for community or municipal networks to correct power imbalances enjoyed by the largest players in Canada’s telecommunications market. A participatory framework where low-income and marginalized communities are included in the policy-building process will help create strategies that adequately address Canadians’ needs, Ellis added.

Our pandemic recovery will require affordability solutions that also take concrete steps to improve choice in our telecommunications market. All levels of government should fund alternative network options to compete with the largest telecommunications players and prevent large-scale acquisitions that reinforce the market’s oligopolistic structure. Patchwork policies that constrain subsidies to a limited number of low-income individuals do not constitute a comprehensive, pan-Canadian internet access strategy that builds affordability into a fundamentally transformed system.

If Canada wants to be prepared for a post-pandemic future in which more of our work, education and health happens online, providing an affordable home internet connection to everyone must be a priority.

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Nour Abdelaal is a Policy and Research Assistant at the Ryerson Leadership Lab, specializing in technology and cybersecurity, and was formerly a Political Assistant at the U.S. Consulate General in Toronto.

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Sam Andrey is Director of Policy and Research at Ryerson Leadership Lab.