Breaking down Canada's digital divide must be part of the post-COVID economic recovery

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Image: Laurent Peignault/Unsplash

In Canada we pride ourselves on our high level of social mobility. Most people across the country can dream of joining the middle or upper class at some point in their lives. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum, Canada ranks 14th out of 82 countries in its global social mobility index -- ranking above all other English-speaking nations. 

But our social mobility is not perfect. Millions of children and workers across the country face challenges that make it more difficult for them to push out of poverty, like racial bias, education and where they live. And, over the past two months, COVID-19 has exposed a major obstacle that is often ignored by policy analysts: a lack of internet access. 

The internet has become an integral part of our modern economy. Students use it to access educational resources, farmers to update software on their tractors, mechanics to access repair manuals, the unemployed to find and apply for work, and even seniors use it to access critical tele-health services. 

Yet, millions of people across the country lack access to what the Canada Radio-televison and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) considers to be the basic internet speeds everyone should have: a minimum of 50 mbps download and 10 mbps upload speeds. According to the CRTC's conservative estimates, close to 60 per cent of rural households lack access to this quality of high-speed internet. Many don't have any internet access at all. 

The stay-at-home orders issued during the pandemic have left many families -- including some in Canada's biggest cities -- with few alternatives when it comes to employment and educational opportunities. In fact, school boards across the country have been struggling to connect with students living in households without internet access. 

At OpenMedia we have been working to increase internet access for over a decade, and over the past two months we've heard from a growing number of people across Canada about the opportunities and services they are missing out on as a result of their lack of internet access. 

One of these people is Nancy, a teacher living north of Hamilton, Ontario, who contacted us earlier this month. Although Ontario's education minister announced that teachers are expected to provide video lessons to their students, Nancy does not have an adequate internet connection at home. On her connection, she cannot send or receive videos from her students, download large files or attend online professional development programs offered by her school district. Her children, in turn, are unable to participate in the online learning environment their classmates are able to take advantage of.

Even though there is an internet backbone connection 100 metres from Nancy's home, she said Cogeco, the only local Internet provider, told her she would have to pay $27,000 for them to run a line to her home. Due to the low data caps of her current connection, she has to rely on her cell-phone data halfway through the month. When she tried to submit her children's assignments to their teachers, it took four hours to upload the files over their slow wireless connection. 

One of our close allies in the area of internet advocacy, Cybera, told us of one of their supporters in rural Alberta who wrote to them. His wife works online; he relies heavily on the internet for his work -- and has two children aged seven and 10. To meet their internet needs, the family has to rely on two different internet plans, one from Rogers and another from Telus, paying a total of $185 each month for barely 350 GB of data. 

The problem is that his Telus plan drops during peak times, which is why he needs two different plans. Now his children are doing distance education, and everyone in the community is moving online, he is worried about internet outages, and the overage fees he will likely incur. He worries this will affect his and his wife's work as well as his children's education. 

And this divide precedes the pandemic. Last year, Al from New Brunswick reached out to tell us he was alone, in ill health and on social assistance. For him, the internet is crucial to accessing health care and human connection, but due to the extremely high cost of internet access in Canada, he has had to cut his food costs to pay for his internet bill. At the time, he worried that any crisis could put his finances over the edge, resulting in the loss of his internet access and him being "truly alone."

Every day, we are hearing more stories like these from people struggling to make it through the pandemic without internet access. But this is a problem beyond the pandemic. To be a full part of the 21st-century economy, households need access to reliable high-speed internet connections. 

That is why OpenMedia and over 20 civil society organizations, academics and businesses have come together to form the Get Canada Connected coalition. Before the pandemic, the government set a target to connect every household to high-speed (50/10mbps) internet by 2030. But that deadline is already a decade too late. 

We are calling on the government to make internet access a key part of Canada's post-COVID economic recovery, and ensure every person in Canada has affordable and reliable high-speed internet access. 

By doing so, we believe they will not only open up new opportunities for families across the country, but also make our communities more resilient for any future pandemics or economic crises.

Rodrigo Samayoa is a digital campaigner at OpenMedia.

Image: Laurent Peignault/Unsplash​

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