With 2020 drawing to a close, we reached out to some of our first FPR contributors to ask them to look back on what they wrote in the early days of the pandemic and reflect on what’s happened since then.

Jon Medow and Ollie Sheldrick’s original piece about the digital divide and COVID-19 ran on April 9, 2020. You can see the rest of our Q&A series here.


Q: Why did you think the digital divide and social isolation was a policy priority at the beginning of the pandemic? Do you still feel that way? Why or why not?

A: As we were suddenly thrust into social distancing and quarantine procedures, the digital divide and its impact on social isolation, educational and work participation became a clear policy priority. The pace of the shift meant that we were poorly equipped to provide alternatives to the prior state-of-play. People were asked to isolate without being given the tools and resources to maintain their previous behaviours and relationships. This was an impact felt most keenly by those who did not have adequate internet access (be that from a lack of internet connection, devices or skills). Despite interventions from government and the educational and community sectors, access remains an issue for many.


Q: You called for universal, affordable high-speed internet, with governments taking a more active role to achieve this. What actually happened?

A: We have seen numerous initiatives at a local level, including from library systems and school boards. The federal government announced an additional investment of $750 million for universal broadband coverage, adding to the $1 billion announced in the 2019 budget. COVID-19 was cited directly as a factor in this budget increase, with $150 million of this set aside for a “Rapid Response Stream with an accelerated application process to allow shovel-ready projects to get started right away.” While this is an important initiative to improve infrastructure, it is important to note that just because broadband is available in a community does not mean that households can afford service costs or will have necessary devices and digital skills. Infrastructure approaches need to be matched with tackling all factors of the digital divide – including costs.


Q: What expectations about the pandemic did you have that contributed to your recommendations? Did they come to pass?

A: Our expectation was that the lockdown and other restrictions to in-person activities would be here for the medium-term, not just the initial spring outbreak. Behaviours undertaken to adapt at the time (e.g. remote work and learning) may remain even after the virus is under control. From our current standpoint, it seems that this expectation has come to pass, with educational establishments and employers adapting their processes significantly. As a result, investing now in tackling the digital divide would pay dividends long into the future.


Q: If the policy approach you recommended was pursued, how do you think it has worked out? If not, how do you think it would have compared to the approach that was eventually pursued?

A: Despite many successes, we have not seen a comprehensive approach to supporting access for households within areas that have broadband infrastructure. Currently it’s too early to say whether the approach that has been taken (increased funds for infrastructure) will have the effect it aims to. Whether this increased infrastructure spending will lead to reducing other barriers (cost, device access, skills) remains to be seen.


Q: What should policy-makers’ priorities be in this space in the coming months?

A: Increasing coverage and access to broadband is of course crucial — but the investment being made by the government can only be effective if coupled with efforts to reduce costs for low-income families. We previously highlighted the extent to which low-income families are struggling, with a high proportion of their household income being drained by communications costs. This is a key issue that remains unaddressed.


Q: What policy position or assumption did you hold heading into 2020 that has been most challenged by the pandemic?

A: It’s conventional wisdom that policy takes time to develop, the process is slow, and policy-makers are risk-averse. The pace of large-scale policy developments that have come to pass this year challenged these assumptions significantly. Whether the changes that have been made, and the shift in approach, will remain is an open question – will there be a desire to shift back to the previous status quo? Or will there be a longer-term expectation that approaches to addressing major challenges can be adopted rapidly?


Q: Finally, it’s time to share a plug: What’s a new information source, advocacy campaign or group, book, etc., that you discovered this year that you think more people in the policy community should know about?

A: We recently learned more about the work of Pathways to Technology in connecting First Nations in B.C. to high-speed internet. Check out their work!


Jon Medow is the Principal of Medow Consulting and a Toronto-based policy analyst and researcher focused on skills, human capital, economic opportunity and social wellbeing. Ollie Sheldrick is a Senior Research Associate with Medow Consulting focused on technology and society, urban sociology and the future of work.


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