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How Canada’s decades-old digital divide left communities disconnected during COVID-19

February 27, 2021

2-minute read

MY SANITY, well-being and career are being held together by Wi-Fi.” These words from an OpenMedia community member capture the relationship that abruptly developed between the Internet and the pandemic last spring. After some initial confusion, millions of workers and students stuck the landing of their transition to online environments. But for millions more, Canada’s persistent digital equity rift—the digital divide—suddenly yawned much wider. A perennial inequality issue that has been nipping in and out of the public discourse for decades, the sudden shock of stay-at-home orders (read: work- and study-at-home orders) brought the issue to the fore.

Canada’s digital divide is exacerbated by the geographic divide between urban and rural communities. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) national internet speed target is 50/10 MBps; but in 2019, only 37.2% people in rural Canada could access those speeds at home.
Within city limits, a major barrier to internet access is cost. While national research is limited, available data confirms that lack of affordability is an equally big problem. In Toronto, 52% of low-income house-holds’ home internet does not meet the CRTC’s speed target.

How has the federal government responded to these gaps? Not expediently. The first major actions to improve access—the rollout of the CRTC’s existing Broadband Fund, and the opening of the government’s Universal Broadband Fund (UBF)—were not initiated until nearly five and eight months into the pandemic, respectively.
During the wait, policymakers were tight-lipped about what assistance was coming, and when. The lack of transparency fuelled the mobilization of grassroots organizers, community members, and civil society to call on the federal government to more rapidly address the connectivity crisis. It was only after receiving thousands of messages from the public, and months of pressure from advocates, that the government finally took action.

The delays would have been more understandable if either program were freshly minted during COVID-19. Instead, not only did government help arrive too late, it almost entirely comprised previously committed funding, with only a limited accelerated fund for a few communities to address connectivity over the course of 2021.
While progress on access has been underwhelming, federal action on affordability has actually made things worse. In 2019, the introduction of wholesale internet rates had put some downward pressure on wired internet prices across Canada. In August 2020, the federal government issued a decision that the CRTC’s wholesale rates should be higher. The market response was immediate, as wholesale-based providers who had set their retail prices based on the expected rates raised retail prices. The decision was problematic on multiple fronts: immediately increasing financial strain for households, adding across-the-board pressure for internet prices to rise and undercutting the CRTC’s attempt to structurally improve the competition of the country’s telecom market.

Sluggish on access and harmful on affordability, the federal approach to closing the digital divide would have been a disappointment in a regular year; but in a pandemic year, it was downright detrimental. Ultimately, the lack of a national broadband connectivity strategy is the root problem here. Without a national strategy that takes internet affordability seriously, maps out who will be connected when, and replaces the current patchwork of leaky-bucket broadband access programs, we will inevitably see further delays and communities left behind.

After the first year of the pandemic, 39% of people in Canada are worse off financially, according to the 2020 BDO Affordability Index. With shrinking household budgets, cheaper internet needs to happen fast; but, as with access, a piecemeal approach will fail to bring everyone in Canada along. It is time for bolder federal policy that deals with the problem’s source—lack of telecom market competition—and uses the power of customer choice to end the Big Telecom oligopolies that keep prices artificially high and sustain the digital divide. As Canadians have been saying, our nation just spent a year being held together by the internet. While it is clear that the best time to act decisively to connect Canada, once and for all, was in March 2020—if not years before— the second best time is right now.

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