High cost of internet access leaving low-income families behind, report finds

A national organization says the high cost of internet access in Canada is threatening to leave low-income families without the means to take part in the digital economy, and it's calling on the federal government to act.

ACORN Canada urges Ottawa to expand scope of its Connecting Families program

Alejandra Ruiz Vargas, chair of the East York chapter of ACORN Canada in Toronto, says: 'If you don't have the internet, you are at a disadvantage.' (Paul Smith/CBC)

The high cost of internet access in Canada is leaving low-income families behind, says a national organization that is calling on the federal government to act.

ACORN Canada, a charitable organization that advocates for low- to moderate-income families, released a report on Tuesday that says "digital equity" must become a federal priority.

In the report, Barriers to Digital Equity in Canada, ACORN Canada says Canadians need online access to apply for jobs, complete school work, download government forms, pay bills and connect with family and friends, and it argues that internet access has become a basic human right.

The high cost of internet in Canada is a well-documented problem that disproportionately impacts low- and moderate-income households, the report says.

Given that people now need to get online to navigate daily life, the report says the government is obligated to ensure affordable, fast and reliable internet access for all Canadians.

"We see a need for affordable internet for all," Alejandra Ruiz Vargas, chair for the East York chapter of ACORN Canada, said in an interview with CBC Toronto.

"If you don't have the internet, you are at a disadvantage. Before, internet was a luxury, but right now, it is a necessity. The internet opens doors for people."

ACORN Canada wants the federal government to expand the scope of its Connecting Families program, which was launched in 2017-18 to deal with digital inequality in Canada. The program targets families who receive the maximum Canada Child Benefit.  (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

Telecom companies need to do their part, report says

ACORN Canada wants the government to expand the scope of its Connecting Families program, which was launched in 2017-18 to deal with digital inequality in Canada. The program is targeted at families who receive the maximum Canada Child Benefit. 

Seniors and single people should be included, Vargas said. "It needs to be for everyone who is low income," she said.

The government has budgeted $13.2 million over five years to help eligible low-income Canadian families get home internet services for $10 per month through the program, which is conducted with the help of participating service providers.

ACORN Canada said it believes the program should be mandatory for the big telecommunications companies.

According to the report, telecommunications providers should set up programs to provide affordable, high-speed home broadband for low- and moderate-income Canadians.

And it says all levels of government should support digital literacy education.

'The high cost of internet in Canada is a well-documented problem that disproportionally impacts low and moderate income households,' the report says. (Shutterstock)

"As essential services become increasingly digitized, it is vital that low and moderate income citizens are not left behind," the report reads.

"A clear digital divide exists along income lines. Telecommunications companies and the government must take action to address the disparity in access that is significantly disadvantaging low-income Canadians and other marginalized [people]."

Cost is 'ridiculous,' says Toronto single mom

For Tomeko Martin, a Toronto single mother of a nine-year-old boy, internet access is essential but expensive. Martin, who is visually impaired, pays about $170 a month to Bell Canada for a bundled package of services that includes internet access. She receives a cheque from Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) for $1,049 a month.

Martin uses the internet every day to do online banking, shopping, research, reading and to stream music, while her son uses it to do homework and watch YouTube videos.

"I think it's ridiculous to be honest with you," Martin said Monday.

More government regulation is needed to curb the rising cost of internet access, she added.

"I don't think it's fair that they make millions and billions of dollar a year but they can't afford to offer low-cost internet to low-income families. The point is, there are people out there who need lower-cost internet. The internet, let's face it, is becoming a huge part of everybody's lives. Pretty soon, everything is going to be online."

'Eighty dollars is awfully high for internet'

Jan Belgrave, a Toronto resident who has fibromyalgia, arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome and high blood pressure, agrees.

She uses the internet "all the time" to research medical problems, find out what resources are available, check information about Wheel-Trans, pay bills and communicate with friends and family. She can't work full-time.

Jan Belgrave, a Toronto resident, says she uses the internet constantly, but struggles to pay her $80 monthly bill. (Joanne Crosthwaite)

Belgrave pays about $80 a month for internet and, like Martin, receives an ODSP cheque for $1,100 a month. Not all of her medications are covered by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan.

"That's a lot of money off my cheque that I need for food and household things," she said. "Eighty dollars is awfully high for internet. Sometimes I will not be able to pay for my medications and have to pay my bills instead."

Belgrave said the big telecommunications companies, given their profit margins, should be able to offer a lower rate for low-income people.

360,000 families signed up for program

Laurel Chester, spokesperson for Navdeep Bains, federal minister of innovation, science and economic development, said in an email on Wednesday that 360,000 families have signed up for the Connecting Families program since it was launched last November.

Families receive internet access offered at $10 a month from one of 14 participating service providers. 

She described the program as "another important step in ensuring that children will have access to valuable digital tools and resources necessary to thrive in a digital world." 

The government is committed to ensuring Canadians have affordable and reliable internet access, she added.

"As outlined in the first principle of our Digital Charter, we will continue to pursue new options to make a fast internet connection available to all Canadians, including all of those in rural and remote regions, to ensure no Canadian is left behind by the digital economy."


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