Posted January 14, 2022
The pandemic laid bare many of the inequities that persist in our systems. One issue that came to the fore was our need for the internet like never before. Every individual was forced to get on to the world wide web for anything and everything. Even eviction hearings moved online with extreme consequences for low-and-moderate income tenants.
While nearly all households in the highest income group have access to home internet, 31 per cent of those in the lowest income group don’t. Through our Internet for All campaign, ACORN Canada has been fighting for affordable internet for all low-income people and to close the digital divide. ACORN members delivered 400 testimonials to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) hearing which led it to a historical declaration of broadband internet access as a basic service objective in 2016. But the declaration fell short of announcing any subsidy for low-income people. ACORN continued its fight and in 2018 came the Connecting Families program—a $10 a month federal internet program that targets families who receive the maximum national child care benefit. This meant keeping $80-million dollars in the pockets of low-income parents.
But the program is available to only some families as there is an estimated 220,000 eligible families and there is an end date—the program is available only until March 2022. Not only that, the internet speed is too low—far lower than what the CRTC itself recommends. As ACORN members’ testimonials reveal, families have been forced to opt out. Grace, an Ottawa ACORN member, was excited to get a letter in the mail telling her that she was accepted for the Connecting Families program. But soon her internet bill from Bell skyrocketed to $100—much more than what she was paying when she hadn’t enrolled for the government program!
Moreover, big telecoms—making billions of dollars—can opt out of this voluntary program. The result? Eastlink in Nova Scotia chose not to opt in.
Recent improvements included TELUS expanding its program to provide affordable internet to people with disabilities in B.C. and Alberta and those who receive the Canada Pension Plan Disability Benefit. Rogers was also forced to expand the eligibility of its low-cost internet program to individuals receiving income support, disability benefits or seniors receiving the Guaranteed Income Supplement in Ontario, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador.
The federal government announced Connecting Families program 2.0 to cover low-income seniors starting in 2022; it is hard to understand if that only covers Telus and Rogers programs or if it includes others like Bell.
Yet, all said and done, none of these initiatives cover all low-income people. I myself was without internet access for almost three decades. My health centre tried helping me and then told me about a Rogers program. Ironically, it requires people to fill out the application on the internet to access the internet.
The current government has committed to connecting 98 per cent of Canadians to high-speed internet by 2026 and all Canadians by 2030—a target already too far away. The range of initiatives that exist today are at best a patchwork, leaving behind thousands of low-income people struggling to connect. The United States set a precedent by starting an Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund by providing a discount of up to $50 per month towards broadband service to eligible households during the pandemic.
ACORN called for a similar Canada Broadband Benefit. The pandemic is far from over and our demand has gone largely unheard. Both the Liberal election platform and the mandate letter for Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne are conspicuously silent on making any commitment.
We need the Connecting Families program to be expanded to all low-income people and made mandatory for all big companies to provide affordable internet at 50/10 Mbps speed. Currently, the internet for low-income people means low speed and high prices.
As Omicron rages and things go back to how they were when the pandemic started, the demand for affordable, high-speed internet needs to grow louder.
Ray Noyes is a member of ACORN, an independent national organization of low-and-moderate income families with 140,000+ members. He has been involved with Ottawa ACORN for almost a decade now and is an avid supporter of affordable, high-speed internet for all low-income people.
Op-Ed by Ray Noyes for the Hill Times