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Fighting for digital equity, in Canada and beyond

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Equitable access to the internet is a communication right.

As the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) points out, not only is the internet a pathway to information, communication, and economic opportunity, it is increasingly necessary to access basic commercial and public services. As more of the world becomes digital, those unable to connect will inevitably be left behind.

This concern has been raised even in Canada, where 34.5 million, or nearly 96 per cent of the population are connected to the internet, although with varying degrees of affordability and connectivity.

ACORN Canada, a national organization that advocates for low- and moderate-income families, says many Canadians "still struggle to afford internet services." In 2016, ACORN conducted a survey among 394 of its members, which showed that 83.5 per cent found the cost of the internet to be "extremely high," while nearly 60 per cent said "they had to cut back elsewhere to afford internet."  About 80 per cent of households with an annual income of $30,000 or lower were "less likely to have home internet access than those with incomes over $60,000 (80 per cent vs. 96 per cent), says ACORN in its latest report.

This digital divide is a pressing issue since "civic, economic, educational and social environments are becoming increasingly digitized," says ACORN. Its earlier report, Digital Equity and Health, notes how those with limited access to the internet face barriers to gaining benefits from health tools and information. As the digitization of health care in Canada advances, ACORN expresses concern that "marginalized groups will be left behind."

Canadians spend an average of $233 for communication services (mobile, internet, landline, television), of which $155 goes to mobile and internet services, according to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission's 2019 Communications Monitoring Report. Low-income Canadians typically spend 9.1 per cent of their income on communication services, says the report.

The United Nations has put forward 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). These aim to "strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development." They call for enhancing "the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology," whose measure is "proportion of individuals using the internet."

As A4AI's Affordability Report 2019 summarizes:

"For the 50 per cent of the world unable to connect, the greatest barrier remains affordability. Across Africa, the average cost for just 1GB data is 7.12 per cent of the average monthly salary. In some countries, 1GB costs as much as 20 per cent of the average salary -- too expensive for all but the wealthiest few. If the average U.S. earner paid 7.12 per cent of their income for access, 1GB data would cost USD $373 per month! This gulf underlines the challenge we have to bridge the global affordability gap and ensure that everyone has affordable internet access."

The report calls on governments to use their policy and regulatory powers to build competitive broadband markets that provide users with lower costs and high-quality services. In doing so, they should focus on three core areas necessary to support healthy, competitive markets:

  • Policymakers should support robust operating rules, and regulators should provide regulatory certainty for service providers to help their long-term planning and to encourage network investments.
  • Regulators and policymakers should play a key role in facilitating infrastructure sharing among operators, investing in high-capacity intermediate links between the core network and the small subnetworks at the edge of the network, and allocating spectrum in a fair and transparent way.
  • Governments should use their regulatory powers to support a competitive market environment as well as invest in opening up markets to new providers and end users.

Civil society is a crucial actor in the struggle for more open, inclusive, and democratic media systems. As such, civil society actors need strategies to implement concrete changes to communication and information legislation and policy, related to issues such as equitable access to information and knowledge and to the internet.

Philip Lee is WACC general secretary and editor of its international journal Media Development. His edited publications include The Democratization of Communication (1995), Many Voices, One Vision: The Right to Communicate in Practice (2004); Communicating Peace: Entertaining Angels Unawares (2008); and Public Memory, Public Media, and the Politics of Justice (ed. with Pradip N. Thomas) (2012).

WACC Global is an international NGO that promotes communication as a basic human right, essential to people's dignity and community.

Image: Ai.Comput'In/Flickr

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