Alex Benay is a partner with KPMG in Canada’s digital and infrastructure, government and health care practice. Stephen Beatty is partner and chair of Global Cities Centre for Excellence at KPMG in Canada.
It is true that we’re all in this together – and in many ways COVID-19 has brought us closer together as a nation. But for many Canadians already on the margins, the realities of the pandemic have left them further disconnected.
Broadband internet access has helped many of us cope and stay engaged during the pandemic lockdown. With millions of people sheltering in place and working from home, broadband infrastructure and high-speed internet is our lifeline. We conduct business, apply for jobs, complete school work, pay bills and connect with family and friends online. We also access news, relief funds and telemedicine online.
But many have been left behind in this new reality.
The lack of reliable high-speed internet access in rural and remote northern communities meant these options were out of reach. And low-income individuals in urban centres who often rely on schools, libraries, coffee shops and free Wi-Fi hot spots for internet access saw these options disappear during the lockdown, creating an even greater digital divide.
Canada prides itself on its inclusive culture. But how can we truly unite as a country if large swaths of the population can’t connect? How can the educational system function without digital tools to engage with students in today’s new reality? How can we lift up underprivileged children and youth in highly urbanized municipalities without equal access to broadband service? How can our cities prosper post-COVID if low-income, racialized and marginalized communities fall even further behind? Will we end up living in cities with even deeper demarcated “have” and “have-not” lines?
We need a stronger, more cohesive vision for a connected Canada that includes a digital infrastructure framework to foster equity and inclusion. Equal access to the internet will help us get there.
Canadians pay some of the highest prices in the world for home internet and mobile data plans – two to three times higher than most other developed countries. That affects our economy and deals yet another blow to low-income, racialized and marginalized communities.
Inclusive and equitable access is at the heart of the idea of internet for all. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has declared broadband internet a basic service, and Canada’s Digital Charter advocates for universal access.
Yet, the problem of inequity persists. The Broadband Fund launched by the CRTC last year, for example, relies on financial contributions from telecoms, so funding is short-term and variable.
While it’s one thing to have access, you also need software, hardware and digital literacy skills for true access to the online world. For those who can’t afford to be online – or don’t have the necessary skills – a world in lockdown during a global pandemic has only made their situation worse. From a broader perspective, this becomes a drag on Canada’s economic recovery efforts.
The pandemic has shown us that the internet is a necessity, not a luxury. But it’s a necessity out of reach for some low-income families, as even low-cost internet options are still too expensive, and speed and quality of data insufficient.
Subsidized internet access could help to create more opportunities for low-income and marginalized groups, but it needs to go hand-in-hand with low-cost devices, such as refurbished laptops, and digital literacy resources.
So, how do we get there?
Typically, the buildout of broadband infrastructure has been left to the telecoms. But municipalities are closest to their residents and should be empowered to respond to their needs. This could be accomplished by reimagining our municipalities as “public utilities” and leveraging their assets to create connected digital infrastructure. We must support their sustainable development for the future.
For example, 5G – the next-generation mobile network required for such advanced technologies as artificial intelligence, which will drive “killer apps” like self-driving vehicles – could be managed like a public utility. Municipalities could then co-develop public-private partnerships to fund innovative solutions for a truly connected Canada, as well as provide access as a neutral “host” to all qualified telecom providers at a fair price to generate revenue.
And, finally, they could create digital infrastructure in underserved areas.
Municipal broadband isn’t just about free or cheap high-speed internet. It’s about boosting economic development, creating a platform for innovation and helping Canada stay competitive on a global scale.
Internet for everyone can only work if our digital infrastructure is equitable and inclusive.
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