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Why Canada should subsidize $10 a month internet for low income families

Graduation rates for students with home internet access is 6-8% higher than those without. It may be time to sensibly ask not whether we can afford to subsidize home internet connection for the poorest Canadians, or whether we can afford not to.
Graduation rates for students with home internet access is 6-8% higher than those without. It may be time to sensibly ask not whether we can afford to subsidize home internet connection for the poorest Canadians, or whether we can afford not to.
Graduation rates for students with home internet access is 6-8% higher than those without. It may be time to sensibly ask not whether we can afford to subsidize home internet connection for the poorest Canadians, but whether we can afford not to.

Capping off an almost year-long campaign, ACORN Canada demonstrated outside the New Westminster, BC, and Ottawa offices of Industry Minister James Moore the other day, advocating that $10 per month internet access be provided as a matter of public policy to households earning under $30,000 annually, plus a subsidy for computer purchase.

While it’s easy to respond that internet access can be had for free at the library and that the market should decide (as many online commenters do), it’s less easy to imagine a life that involves a visit to the library for every internet-related need.

The problem of access is global. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web and backer of an Alliance for Affordable Internet backed by Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft says, “There is simply no good reason for the digital divide to continue. The real bottleneck now is anti-competitive policies and regulations that keep prices unaffordable.”

In the United States, the FCC has at least worked in concert with the big telcos, who have committed to offering $10 packages at least through 2014. While not broadband speed, the inexpensive connection is still important. “It’s not good for downloading movies, I give you that,” says Josh Gottheimer, senior counsellor to FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, “but that’s not the ultimate goal of this program.”

According to Statistics Canada, 54% of households in the lowest quartile of $30,000 or less do not have home internet access. This is roughly consistent with a report prepared for the U.S. Department of Commerce that finds 57% of homes earning less than $25,000 have no computer and that only 43% have home internet, compared with 93% with household income over $100,000.

Not only is a digital illiteracy a barrier to employment in the IT labour market, it’s a barrier to employment, full stop.

Not only is digital illiteracy a barrier to employment in the IT labour market, it’s a barrier to employment, full stop. Many HR departments now don’t even consider a CV sent via email, preferring to concentrate on prospects with a thriving LinkedIn profile. And the FCC tells us that more than 80% of Fortune 500 companies, such as Walmart and Target, require that applications be submitted online. And it goes without saying that the new paradigm of freelance work from home are unavailable to those with no connection.

A study called “The Real Cost of the Digital Divide” speculates that online shopping saves individuals and families thousands of dollars per year, ironically gouging those who most need the discount. Graduation rates for students with home internet access is 6%-8% higher than those without. And unemployment rates for those who don’t graduate are significantly higher than for those with any level of education. The downward knock-on effects are consistent. It may be time to sensibly ask not whether we can afford to subsidize home internet connection for the poorest Canadians, but whether we can afford not to, looking at it strictly from a perspective aiming to increase innovation and productivity.

ACORN Canada took a survey across its membership recently which, while small at 284 respondents, accounts for the Big Three telcos, as well as Eastlink and Fido, and rattles off the usual hassles involving unexpected overage charges, billing errors and the onerous difficulties of getting out of a contract. Everyone, rich or poor, has an opinion about Canada’s telecoms. What’s different about the ACORN study is its demographic: low-income working people.

What’s clear is that the problem of access represents a significant barrier to each person doing well in every other aspect of life and pushing the country towards the kind of future that technology promises.

For many of the study’s respondents, the issue is both dissatisfaction with service when they do get it and obtaining access to begin with. A comment submitted by one participant outlines a common ad-hoc solution resorted to by many, “I actually cannot afford any internet provider. I share my internet services with my neighbour’s family, and pay him a little something to help pay the bill.”

ACORN’s study points out that while the recent wireless “code of conduct” implemented by the CRTC is a good if superficial start, it does nothing to practically address issues of access for lower-income Canadians.

The issue of the “digital divide” is one often discussed with reference to the developing world and the quality of life associated with haves and have-nots, pointing up the immediate benefits that digital literacy means for people’s employment and academic prospects and for the benefit to the economy as a whole. Canada’s business community frequently talks about Canada’s “productivity gap” in which we worry over the shortage of skilled workers and the low rate of math and programming literacy among Canadian students. It seems just possible that we’re discussing same issue, and framing it from different ends of the political spectrum.

Newly ex-Conservative senator Hugh Segal has recently been making the case for doing away with the invasive and humiliating welfare system in favour of a guaranteed annual income. Noting the perversity of a system that revokes benefits for those who go to school and punishes them for working, Segal’s objective is to unleash human potential by freeing people from the overwhelming treadmill of simply covering basic life costs. He writes, “In a mixed free market Canadian economy where enterprise, risk, diligence and hard work matter, equality of opportunity is essential if fairness about access to the economic mainstream is to be real for all.”

Locked as each of us are within their own echo chamber of friends and colleagues, we can’t be blamed for taking for granted that everyone has home internet access. We can’t imagine our lives without it. But lack of access is a feedback loop in which it’s unclear whether no internet in a home is a cause or the symptom of poverty. What’s clear is that the problem of access represents a significant barrier to each person doing well in every other aspect of life and pushing the country towards the kind of future that technology promises.

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