National Post: Many Canadians struggle to afford pricey high-speed home internet in urban areas
Posted December 28, 2022
Ray Noyes has spent most of his life without a home internet connection.
He lives in Vanier, a densely populated neighbourhood close to Ottawa’s downtown core. Before the pandemic, he would bring his old laptop to the local library or go to his mother’s house and use her computer to check his email.
At the time, Noyes was eligible for the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), which provided him with $1,169 a month for basic needs and shelter. He said on this budget purchasing home internet was out of the question.
In 2017, Noyes’ health condition worsened and limited his ability to leave his home. His trips to the library lessened as did his use of the internet
And then the pandemic hit.
Noyes spent most of the pandemic without the internet. He has a TV that gets three channels and a radio, which he used to follow the news.
“I was constantly hearing about how important it was to have the internet, how important it was for people not to become isolated, and how there was information online about COVID and you could be in touch with your doctor,” he said. “And there I was hearing about all this, but without access to it.”
For low- and moderate-income Canadians living in urban areas, the struggle is not access to the internet, it is whether they can afford it at home.
In an increasingly digital world, having a high-speed connection at home means immediate access to important information like bank statements, health records, and education. For those that rely on public internet connections, it means more time at home and less commuting to and from the library. And for those that are isolated, it means a direct connection to up-to-date news, family and community.
According to Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED), in 2018 almost half of Canadian households with an annual income of $30,000 or less did not have access to high-speed internet at home. Research has found some low-income people that do have an internet connection end up sacrificing things like food and medication in order to afford it.
Experts say investments in expanding subsidy programs and public internet access are essential to getting those in urban areas connected.
For Beulah Paul, who calls herself a “reluctant tech user,” not having internet at home hasn’t been a pressing issue.
While it was a matter of affordability, Paul, who lives in the East York neighbourhood of Toronto, was still able to have a vibrant and fulfilling social life. She is part of several local clubs and organizations, whose events she attended regularly.
This all changed when the pandemic hit.
“I was forced to use, learn, and accept the internet because, without it, my spirit would have just died,” she said.
During the first five months of the pandemic, the only internet access Paul had was through her phone. Whenever she wanted to join an online meeting or use WhatsApp to connect with her family in India, she had to pay for a data day pass through her cell phone provider.
Although she tried to contribute to regular meetings, she said her connection was poor. She was not able to use video and if the data ran out it would abruptly cut her off.
While Noyes and Paul have felt firsthand the impact of the digital divide for many years before the pandemic, they both said COVID-19 revealed just how important it is to have reliable internet at home.
“You need internet for everything these days,” said Noyes. “Work, school, doctor’s appointments, accessing news information, government services, and staying connected with friends and family.”
According to an ACORN Canada survey of 500 of their members, 83 per cent of respondents said they had home internet. ACORN Canada is a community union of low- and moderate-income people, both Noyes and Paul are members of their community chapters.
Despite the relatively high number of those connected, more than one-third of survey respondents said a lack of home internet has been a barrier to completing tasks online. And of the respondents that do not have home internet, 72 per cent said cost is the main reason.
The survey found a quarter of low-income respondents sacrificed purchasing food to pay for their internet services and almost one-third reported having to make multiple sacrifices, whether that be food, travel, clothing, or medicine.
Lack of internet access also affects a household’s ability to access critical services.
According to a report on Toronto’s digital divide by the Leadership Lab at Toronto Metropolitan University, 32 per cent of respondents said having no home internet has impacted their access to government services and information, 27 per cent said banking, 27 per cent said health care, 25 per cent said education, and 15 per cent said work.
“If you don’t have access to the internet at home, it becomes harder to do these essential things,” said Sam Andrey, director of policy and research at the Leadership Lab. “You end up relying more on public internet hotspots or libraries.”
In September 2020, Paul’s daughter began paying for her mother’s home internet service. She would bring her newborn daughter to Paul’s home for her to watch while she taught school virtually, which required a reliable internet connection.
Paul said her daughter is paying $80 per month for high-speed internet at her home.
“I don’t feel good depending on my daughter,” said Paul.
According to the Leadership Lab’s report, most Toronto households pay between $36 and $100 per month for home internet service. Households with incomes less than $30,000 only pay somewhat less than those making over $100,000, that is a $61 average per month compared to a $72 average.
The report also found there is a weak relationship between the monthly price, download speed, and performance, which determines how fast information is transferred to your computer. This means, households making less than $30,000 are paying on average $732 for internet per year with no guarantee the internet speeds will perform.
Andrey said there are very few apartments in Toronto that do not have access to high-speed, reliable internet. If a household in the city is not connected, it is almost always because of price.
Noyes was also able to get connected to the internet before the end of the pandemic.
His doctor had heard about a program through his community health centre that provided tablets with internet access to low-income people. While helpful, Noyes said they only provided 5 gigabits of data per month, which limited his use.
Noyes is now connected to the internet at home through the Rogers Communications Connected for Success program which he qualifies for as a recipient of the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), a payment available to low-income Old Age Security (OAS) pensioners.
You need internet for everything
The Connected for Success program offers affordable internet plans to those who qualify. The cheapest plan is $9.99 before tax and offers 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 5 Mbps upload. The most expensive is $34.99 before tax with 150/15 Mbps.
The Canadian government’s Connecting Families program also aims to provide affordable internet connections to low-income families, but advocacy groups argue it does not reach enough households nor does it provide adequate speeds or enough data for typical working families.
This program is currently offering 200 GB of data and 50/10 Mbps internet, in line with what the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) considers high-speed, for $20 per month.
Shelley Robinson, executive director of National Capital FreeNet, an Ottawa-based not-for-profit internet service provider (ISP), said this program is designed to serve up to 220,000 households across the entire country and is only eligible to families receiving the maximum Canada Child Benefit and low-income seniors receiving the maximum GIS.
“This does not begin to address the need for affordable internet in Canada,” said Robinson.
The Connecting Families program relies on Canadian ISPs to participate voluntarily and without a government subsidy, meaning the ISPs must already have the bandwidth to provide the subsidized internet service.
This is not an issue for large telecommunications companies that have the internet infrastructure in place. For smaller ISPs, like National Capital FreeNet, that rely on purchasing wholesale broadband at high rates from the biggest providers it is more difficult to participate.
“Even as a not-for-profit committed to affordability we can’t participate in a voluntary government-supported program because the wholesale cost of services we would need to pay Rogers and Bell is so high,” said Robinson.
Of course, to benefit from the internet, one must have a device to connect to it and for some low- or moderate-income households buying a computer or smartphone is not within budget.
In a survey of Ottawa Community Housing tenants, National Capital FreeNet found 56 per cent of respondents had access to a smartphone with data, 47 per cent had access to a laptop, 43 per cent had access to a tablet, and 31 per cent had access to a desktop computer.
According to the Toronto Public Library’s (TPL) Bridge Survey, which helps the library capture data about who is using its services, from August 2021 to May 2022 61 per cent of respondents said the library was their only access to technology services.
Pam Ryan, director of service development and innovation at the TPL, said in a typical day there are over 25,000 uses of the technology at the 100 TPL branch locations. That includes 14,000 Wi-Fi uses and about 11,400 computer uses, she said.
TPL runs a program which loans out Wi-Fi hotspots for six months to people without internet at home. Ryan said when customers return the devices, she asks how their life will change without the internet.
She has been told they will no longer be able to check food fliers to see where they should shop to get the best deal, their kids will have to go to the library at night to do their homework and miss out on family time, and they will have to take a longer bus route home than normal to get in a stop at a library to use the internet.
“People whose lives are already so complicated from being low-income, and then the extra things they have to do for internet access just expands on the inequities,” said Ryan.
There have been calls from groups like ACORN for cities to develop municipal broadband networks.
The city of Toronto is currently taking a stab at this and in 2023 is expecting a report on how city-owned fibre infrastructure can be used to help bridge the digital divide.
Noyes said he considers himself a lucky person to be on a program that allows him to have an affordable connection at home.
“It has just made me realize how important it is to get the internet in the first place and makes me feel more sympathy for those who are still left out.”