'Internet is the only lifeline they have': Canada needs to confront 'digital divide' amid COVID-19 crisis
'When we're saying this is a basic service, we need to prioritize it,’ advocate says
The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing Canada to confront many of its hidden social inequalities, one of these being unequal access to the internet, an internet freedom advocate says.
Laura Tribe, executive director of OpenMedia, says disproportionate access to the internet is often talked about in terms of only affecting the North or remote communities, however, the current public health crisis has shown the problem is just as common in many cities.
"There are so many people throughout the country — even in urban areas — that don't have the internet at home, [who] are reliant on schools, libraries, Wi-Fi hotspots at coffee shops like Tim Hortons, [all] trying to figure out how to make it work," Tribe told Spark's Nora Young.
"When something like the COVID-19 pandemic hits, we really see what happens when you don't prioritize it. We see how far people are being left behind."
Many provinces, including Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Quebec, have ordered non-essential services and workplaces, like cafes, restaurants and libraries, to close in an attempt to keep people home and slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Normally, many families use these public facilities to bridge the gap that forms the digital divide, making it "a little bit more invisible," she said.
"We don't see it even though certain people are feeling it. And when people are forced to reconcile with how necessary connectivity in your home is, but also what it looks like when people are fundamentally on or off, it will really sharpen that digital divide."
'Prioritize' basic internet access
In 2016, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) declared the internet a basic service that everyone should have access to — the same as water and power.
However, three years later, the federal government announced that only by 2030 will every single person in Canada have access to high speed internet, Tribe said.
"Fundamentally, when we're saying this is a basic service, we need to prioritize it."
"It's really [about] making sure that … we are finding ways through subsidies and affordable plans so every single household has the right to a guaranteed minimum internet service."
'Other necessities' pushed aside for internet
ACORN Canada's Ottawa office said its has received a handful of internet-related calls concerning affordability and where people could get access to cheaper services since the start of the pandemic.
"Most of our offices have also been doing digital literacy training on how to use Zoom [video conferencing], sign or share online petitions and make phone calls from their home computers," a spokesperson said.
Norma Jean Quibell, co-chair of the Britannia chapter of ACORN Canada in Ottawa, says many low-income families have no choice but to pay the high costs imposed by internet service providers (ISP).
"A lot of us feel like we're boxed into this market that doesn't give us choice," she said. "If you're low-income, you kind of just pay what you're told."
You might decide to spend less on your grocery bill because you need internet access for that week. - Norma Jean Quibell, ACORN Canada
The problem, according to Quibell, lies with the dominance large internet companies hold, giving ISPs the ability to "charge whatever they want" depending on which areas of the country you live in.
According to the CRTC's 2019 report on communication utilities, Canadians living in rural communities generally had fewer ISPs to choose from than those living in urban centres. In addition to having fewer ISPs, rural communities also had access to slower internet service speeds and were charged more for the lower quality connections.
"People are having to choose [between] what services they're using and other necessities get pushed to the side," Quibell said. "You might decide to spend less on your grocery bill because you need internet access for that week."
In 2018, low-income families became eligible to receive a $10-per-month internet plan under an initiative from the federal government and ISPs, pushed by ACORN.
Quibell says it is time this program is extended beyond families to "everyone who has a low income."
Internet the 'only lifeline' some have
If someone finds themselves in an "absolutely dire, really tight spot," Quibell says there are services, like ACORN's outreach offices, which are still available to help people get connected.
"Some people really need access and the internet is the only lifeline they have."
In the meantime, several major internet service providers, including Bell and Rogers, have lifted data caps on home internet temporarily to ease some of the stress on those who might have lost their jobs or are struggling financially.
"It's really interesting to see that something, which has been argued for so long by ISPs as being necessary to maintain and control traffic, can actually be taken away during the highest traffic times we have had," Tribe said.
She advised people to be mindful about those in their communities who might need internet access because "it's really a good time to consider how we share the resources we have" and the "internet is a really big resource that we have."
"We're talking about when going to get groceries for neighbours, check in on them, check if they have the internet. If not, maybe this is the time to consider sharing your Wi-Fi. Or if you have an extra device lying around that would help someone who doesn't have one, they could borrow it."
Once the coronavirus crisis comes to a close, Tribe says she doesn't think "anyone is going to question the value of the internet" and not just in terms of what it means for connectivity to work or school, but the central role it plays in connecting people.
"At the end of all of this, we're going to see a really big shift in people's understanding of what that digital divide looks like and what it means — in the same way that I don't think anyone is ever going to question the value of a stay-at-home-parent again."
Written by Adam Jacobson. Produced by Olsy Sorokina.