Offline: What's keeping 20% of Canadian homes unwired

While four out five Canadian homes have internet access, other households remain offline through choice or circumstance.
Four out of five Canadian households have internet access. In other homes, lack of need or interest is a major reason not be online. (Canadian Press)

In most Canadian homes, it's a given: There's a computer somewhere and it's hooked up to the internet.

But in one in five households — many of them among the poorest in the country — there is no such beast. What's more, there is no internet connection, either through circumstance or choice.

And that can make life tough.

"It's becoming increasingly difficult to engage in a lot of day-to-day activities without internet access," observes Catherine Middleton, an associate professor at Ryerson University in Toronto who holds a Canada Research Chair in communication technologies.

Think about trying to land a new job — online listings and application processes are the norm these days. Do just about any kind of interaction with any level of government, and the bureaucrats will be very happy to suggest you go to their website first for information or forms.

So what's keeping people offline, and what could be done to help those who want home internet access?

"I don't think there is one silver bullet that would solve the problems or change the numbers to get more people online," says Tom Copeland, chair of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers.

"Simply making it more available isn't going to change the adoption level a whole lot at this point," says Copeland. "I just don't see that we're ever going to get to the point that every home will have it because not every home wants it."

Who is offline?

While, overall, 21 per cent of Canadian households have no internet access, the gaps are more pronounced when you look at the numbers by income.

As Statistics Canada reported recently, 46 per cent of households in the lowest income quarter — where income is $30,000 or less — had no internet access at all in 2010. In the highest quarter — income above $87,000 — only three per cent were offline.

Among those who aren't online, the main reason given was having no need or interest (56 per cent). Cost of service or equipment was next (20 per cent), followed by lack of a device such as a computer (15 per cent). Twelve per cent of households said they lacked confidence, knowledge or skills. Four per cent said they accessed the internet elsewhere.

Those numbers and the reasons given for being offline at home haven't changed significantly in recent years.

"There's always been a higher proportion of low-income Canadians who aren't online," says Middleton. And lack of interest has been a key reason for not being connected to the internet at home.

But when Middleton hears reference to a person's "lack of interest," that translates for her into "not understanding what is out there."

Middleton points to a program in the U.K. that is designed to bridge that gap. 

Race Online 2012, an initiative supported by the British government and linked to London's hosting of the Summer Olympics next year, urges government, industry and charities to help everyone get online.

Prime Minister David Cameron tops a list of  "leading U.K. supporters" and says: "In the internet age, we need to make sure that people aren't being left behind as more and more services and business move online."

Digital champions

One key to the U.K. initiative is a "Digital Champion" program, which encourages those who are already internet savvy to, among other things, inspire a friend or family member to get online. They are are also encouraged to show others where they might learn about the internet or how they could donate spare equipment.

For some Canadians who are offline, however, there may a feeling it costs too much to have a computer or pay the monthly internet fee. And in some rural or more remote parts of Canada, cost and availability of broadband — something that can be taken for granted in urban areas — become barriers.

'The average consumer has a fair amount of choice.'—Kaan Yigit, Solutions Research Group

"The average consumer has a fair amount of choice" in terms of finding an internet service provider, says new media analyst Kaan Yigit, president of Solutions Research Group, a market research firm.

With internet plans at $20 to $25 per month for light usage, which Yigit compares to the cost of two or three meals outside the home, "it's really not out of reach for many people at that entry level."

But the cost of getting high-speed internet in smaller markets can be a barrier to some and, Yigit says, "those are the cases where I think you might think about subsidies either at the local level or a provincial level."

Subsidies can be a sparkplug for political controversy, but Yigit is firm in his support.

"We don't question why we subsidize having parks in our cities because we just know that it's good for everybody to have equitable and reasonable access to greenspace. I think to some extent broadband is along those lines."

'Essential service'

Yigit says that, these days, you can look at the internet as an essential service like water or hydro and that would be the basis of targeted subsidies where the market doesn't provide the infrastructure at a reasonable price.

A tax credit for lower-income households if money is spent on internet subscriptions would be one approach, he suggest. "In the grand scheme of things, it would not be a lot of money."

Copeland, at the Canadian Association of Internet Providers, doesn't think internet use should be subsidized at the retail level. But if there were ways to brings to bring down infrastructure costs at a network level, "then one would hope that would bring the retail prices down."

Middleton sees a variety of ways to address the cost factor, not necessarily subsidies.

'The initiatives on the pricing side I think are really driven by competition.'—Catherine Middleton

"The initiatives on the pricing side I think are really driven by competition."

Other initiatives could also help, whether they involve providing people with lower-cost computer equipment, such as refurbished machines, or computer training at local libraries, where Middleton sees much virtue in having people working with those who are trying to get online.

"Just having a computer on its own probably isn't as useful as a computer in the library with a person."

Still, there is no guarantee all Canadians will ever be online, or will want to be.