Digital divide: Is high-speed internet access a luxury or a right?

The CRTC will soon have to decide whether all Canadians have the right to access the Internet at home, regardless of income. And if so, who will pay for it?

CRTC to mull internet subsidies for poorest Canadians at hearings into future of telecommunications

Some scoff at the notion that broadband internet access is a human right. But others say they would rather go hungry than live without it. (GaudiLab/Shutterstock )

In an era when some Canadians are cutting back on groceries and skimping on the rent just to stay online, there's a growing argument that high-speed home internet access is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. And the CRTC will soon have to decide whether it agrees. 

Internet access has become necessary for employment, education and civic engagement, advocates say. People need to go online to find work, do homework, obtain many government services and stay connected, especially as more programs move toward cloud-based subscription models.

But not everyone has equal access. And that digital divide, advocates say, serves to keep the poorest Canadians from getting a leg up.

'A human right'

The Affordable Access Coalition, made up of public policy, consumer advocate and anti-poverty organizations, is petitioning the CRTC to subsidize internet access for low-income and rural Canadians.

The CRTC will consider the proposal, among others, at public hearings into telecommunications services in April. 

Coalition member ACORN Canada, a national organization of low- and moderate-income families, is calling on the CRTC to mandate that $10 per month high-speed internet packages be made available to families and individuals living below Statistics Canada's low-income measure.

"It's no longer a commodity; it's a necessity," ACORN spokeswoman Alejandra Ruiz Vargas told CBC News. 

She is not alone in that assertion. 

In speech last year, U.S. President Barack Obama proclaimed: "Today, high-speed broadband is not a luxury, it's a necessity."

In a 2015 address to the United Nations, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called internet access "a basic human right, like access to health care or water." 

Facebook, as well as Google, have been investing in expanded internet access in the developing world. Google, meanwhile, announced last week it will provide free ultra-high-speed internet to public housing residents in cities on its Google Fiber network. 

Google Fiber's ultra-high-speed internet will be free for public housing residents in select U.S. cities. (George Frey/Reuters)

Even back in 2011, UN's special rapporteur on freedom of expression called on all governments "to develop a concrete and effective plan of action to make the internet widely available, accessible and affordable to all segments of the population."

But not everyone is sold. 

Commissioner Michael O'Rielly of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission said in a speech last year that internet access "doesn't even come close to the threshold to be considered a basic human right."

"People do a disservice by overstating its relevancy or stature in people's lives," he said. "People can and do live without internet access, and many lead very successful lives."

But some Canadians are so desperate to stay online, they forgo other basic needs to do so, says ACORN.

Some Canadians are cutting into their rent and grocery budgets in order to pay their internet bills. (Pixsooz/Shutterstock)

The group recently surveyed 400 of its members and discovered 59 per cent have cut into other budgets to pay their internet bills. Of those, 71 per cent went without food, 64 per cent cut back on recreation and 13 per cent delayed paying their rent.

Eight per cent of those surveyed don't have the internet at home or have cancelled it due to high costs.

"The results were shocking," Vargas said. "Sometimes, we take things for granted."

'Universal service'

John Lawford of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre stops short of calling broadband access a human right, but said it should be considered a "universal service," with public policy geared toward making it as widely accessible as possible. 

The advocacy centre, also a member of the coalition, suggests that higher-earning Canadians pay a little extra on their own internet bills — about a dollar a month — to subsidize access for those who can't afford it. 

That money would fund internet infrastructure in rural areas and subsidies of $10.50 to $20.50 per month for low-income Canadians in urban centres. 

But it wouldn't cover the $10-per-month packages ACORN is lobbying for.

"My understanding is that ACORN is going to have to seek further support from say, government, if they really want to get it down to $10," Lawford said.

Keeping pace 

If the CRTC agrees to pursue universal access to broadband internet, it will have to decide what basic service looks like.

Lawford worries that if the benchmark is set too low, Canadians will still be left behind as fibre optic networks expand and raise the bar for what constitutes an acceptable internet. 

"As the rest of the networks get upgraded, if there isn't a very careful upgrading of the lowest package for people, this divide in substance will happen again, even though they have quote-unquote internet access, because you won't be able to do anything," he said.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre suggests a flexible target, based on average download speeds enjoyed by 80 per cent of connected Canadians.

Cost not the biggest barrier: Rogers

The big telecoms will also have their say at the CRTC hearings, where Rogers plans to argue that cost is not the biggest barrier to internet access.

Spokeswoman Jennifer Kett cited a December 2015 Ipsos Reid survey of 1,250 Canadians that found 91 per cent have the internet at home. Among those who don't, 30 per cent cited cost as a barrier, while the other 70 per cent cited a lack of interest or ability. 

"So the real challenge is making sure Canadians are getting the most out of their access. That means tackling all barriers such as confidence in security and privacy and increasing digital literacy," Kett said. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?