The post-pandemic future: Affordable Internet will become a universal human right
Alejandra Ruiz Vargas is the national leadership representative for ACORN Canada
In the early years of the Internet, it was primarily a luxury: a fun and convenient way to access games, watch videos, shop from your sofa. But in recent years, it’s become clear that high-speed Internet is a necessity for living in our current world, as crucial to our well-being as central heating or access to clean water. I’m a member of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, and long before Covid appeared, we were trying to convince politicians, the CRTC and telecom giants that Internet access was a basic need. People need connectivity for practical reasons, like finding jobs, getting government benefits and doing homework, as well as accessing entertainment and keeping in touch with loved ones. In 2016, the United Nations declared Internet access a human right, but even in Canada, around half of low-income families don’t have access to high-speed Internet at home.
Of course, during Covid, this crisis only got worse. Libraries, which had been accessible to people without Internet, closed for several months, although they left Wi-Fi accessible near their buildings and offered connectivity kits for many families. Some people who were stuck at home during the pandemic were unable to maintain contact with work. Many single parents who can’t afford a monthly plan were suddenly responsible for keeping their kids looped into e-learning. Seniors living in assisted care facilities became even more isolated, and people with disabilities were unable to access medical care. Some of the biggest fallout we’re seeing from a lack of Internet isn’t practical but social. While many of us have become regulars on Zoom, those who can’t afford Internet are unable to connect with family and friends.
Since Covid began, the city has announced it will install Wi-Fi in 25 private residential apartment buildings in low-income neighbourhoods for a year, as well as all 10 city-operated long-term care homes. But this will take some time. And while some private Internet service providers are offering their own initiatives, these programs are not standardized. For instance, Rogers provides $10 Internet in Toronto Community Housing buildings. But the wait-list to even live in these buildings is thousands long, and the Wi-Fi slows down when it’s accessed by more than a few people. This presents issues for families who need to access streaming for work or education, or have to download large files.
What we need instead is something much more inclusive: free Wi-Fi in all public spaces, and private home plans available for $10 per month, available to low-income people and fixed-income seniors, subsidized by local and federal governments. This would essentially be an expansion of the federal government’s existing Connecting Families initiative, a partnership with large telecom companies that offers $10 monthly Internet to high-needs families.
With some tweaks, the current program could be much more inclusive. Right now, only 220,000 households are eligible to access the program, and only if their service providers choose to participate. (Eastlink, a service provider in the Maritimes, for instance, chose to opt out.) Some people enrolled in the program have said the connection is so slow that they’ve cancelled the plan. They’d rather pay $50 per month than $10 for web access that doesn’t work.
When people gain access to the Internet, their quality of life improves. One of our ACORN members from B.C. is a senior who’s usually without social connection. When her daughter enrolled in the federal Connecting Families initiative, she was finally able to access video calls. She wasn’t able to visit her grandchildren these last few months, so just being able to see their faces has provided so much relief.
The federal government already has the infrastructure for this program in place: all they need to do is increase the scope and speed so all low-income people can get Internet. Their messaging throughout Covid has been that we’re all in this together. It’s time to prove that they mean it.