The federal government is cutting funding for a public internet access program, CBC News has learned.

The Community Access Program (CAP or C@P) operates out of libraries and community centres across Canada to provide free or low-cost internet access to the public.

Eric Stackhouse is chairman of the Nova Scotia CAP Association, which represents the 11 CAP networks in the province.  There are 209 sites across Nova Scotia and thousands across the country.

'Shocked' by news

He got an email overnight Thursday saying Industry Canada is cutting the funding.

"Basically, Industry Canada has said it has achieved its purpose and the CAP program is being terminated," he said. "I was really shocked."

Stackhouse said he and others had been trying to contact Industry Canada for the last month to see where the program stood. No one returned his calls or emails. 

"I had hoped that we would have some discussion before they made that decision, but as they've done in the past, they simply sent out letters," he said. "There's great disappointment and a lot of frustration. They say it's achieved its purpose, but they never say what that purpose was."

The CAP program pays for the web connection, rent in community centres, and for coordinators and technical support.

"It helps people get on the information superhighway and keep them connected," Stackhouse said. "I know CAP sites are going to close."

Those that find a way to remain open will offer less technical support and be unable to update equipment, he said.

CAP helps with tax forms

Stackhouse said people still need access to the internet via public sites. Some can't afford a computer or high-speed internet connection and many need help going online to fill in government forms.

Stackhouse said the problem is compounded because many government departments tell people to go online to fill in forms and get more information.

"For example at our New Glasgow library, CAP helps Revenue Canada volunteers fill out tax forms for low-income people. So we're helping Revenue Canada get its job done. To say it's achieved its goal, to me it's just mind-boggling," he said.

Nova Scotia's CAP sites received $650,000 in annual funding from Ottawa. The province added $250,000 and the whole program costs about $8 million a year in the province, with the rest coming from municipalities, libraries and donations.

"But really what kept that together was that Industry Canada money," Stackhouse said.

Without that central funding, he said, the others might stop supporting the program.

He said the federal government was going to keep funding CAP money for hiring youth.

"They say any CAP site can access this youth money, but they've cancelled the CAP program. That's confusing," he said.

"To send it out on a Thursday night before a long weekend — I don't know what that says."

He urged concerned citizens to contact their MPs to lobby to restore the funding.

'Challenging fiscal times' blamed for cut

In the email, Lisa Setlakwe, a director general with Industry Canada, says the program was launched in 1995 to "provide Canadians with access to the internet and its economic benefits."

"CAP has contributed to bringing computer and internet technologies to Canadians across the country and has successfully achieved its objectives," Setlakwe says. "In these challenging fiscal times, the government remains committed to prioritizing expenditures and returning to a balanced budget."

Margaux Stastny, director of communications for Industry Canada, said the service was no longer required.

"The vast majority of Canadians are now connected to the internet at home, while many more have access through their mobile devices," she said.

"Schools, libraries and not-for-profit learning organizations will continue to benefit from other federal initiatives such as the Computers for Schools Program."

She said the government was also improving Canada's internet infrastructure.

The funding will run out at the end of March. 

Low-income households behind in internet access

According to Statistics Canada's 2010 Internet Use Survey, 79 per cent of Canadian households had an internet connection. It also reported that 97 per cent of households in the top income quartile had internet access at home, but only 54 per cent of households in the lowest quartile had it.

The lowest quartile refers to households with incomes of $30,000 or less.

The survey found that 93 per cent of households with three or more residents had the internet, but only 58 per cent of one-person households did.

"Among the one-fifth (21 per cent) of households without home internet access in 2010, over one-half (56 per cent) reported they had no need for or interest in it," the report says.

"Other reasons for having no access included the cost of service or equipment (20 per cent), or the lack of a device such as a computer (15 per cent). About 12 per cent of households reported they lacked confidence, knowledge or skills."

CAP Termination Letter