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Technology Anti-poverty group calls for cheaper internet access for low- and moderate-income Canadians

Tabitha Naismith often forgoes buying herself a much-needed pair of shoes or a new bra in order to pay the $95 a month it takes to keep the internet on at the social-housing unit she shares with her two young girls in the Newton neighbourhood of Surrey, B.C.

The single mother says she recently switched telecom providers and is now saving $35 each month from what she used to pay, but these fees still make up a tenth of the $997 in monthly disability assistance she and her small family live on. Still, the sacrifices are worth it, she says, especially with her eldest daughter about to enter Grade 2.

"I go online to show her educational videos, help her with her math skills, help her with her reading and research when she has questions like, ‘Mom, what’s this?’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t know!’” Ms. Naismith said. “A lot of people say the internet is a luxury; it’s actually a basic human right as far as I’m concerned.”

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Ms. Naismith has been volunteering with anti-poverty group ACORN Canada and helped orchestrate a national survey of 472 of its members that was released on Tuesday showing almost half pay more than $70 a month for internet. More than 35 per cent of respondents, who hailed from 21 cities across five provinces, said paying for an internet connection came at the expense of basic necessities such as food, clothing or transit. The survey targeting the working poor and those on social assistance was completed face-to-face, over the phone and online, with 55 per cent of respondents stating they earned $30,000 or less.

“The high cost of internet in Canada is a well-documented problem that disproportionally impacts low- and moderate-income households,” the study stated.

Alejandra Ruiz Vargas, a Toronto-based advocate with ACORN, said the results underscore the digital divide affecting the country’s poorest people and the need for further government intervention. ACORN, which counts 130,000 members across chapters in nine Canadian cities, is now calling on Ottawa to expand an agreement with the country’s largest internet providers to offer deeply discounted service to all low-income families.

Last year, Navdeep Bains, the federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, announced the Connecting Families program, offering home internet packages for $10 a month to families with annual household incomes below $30,450 a year. The official website for the program states the following telecom providers as partners in the program: Rogers Communications Inc., Telus Inc., BCE Inc., Shaw Communications Inc., Vidéotron, Cogeco Inc., CCAP, Tbaytel, Westman Media Cooperative Ltd., Hay Communications Cooperative, Access Communications Cooperative Ltd. and SaskTel.

Laurel Chester, a spokesperson for Mr. Bains, said in a statement e-mailed Tuesday that the ministry has invited 360,000 families to sign up for this cheaper internet plan since the program started last November. The statement did not mention how many households had signed up or whether Ottawa intends to expand these efforts. The government committed $13-million over five years to create and run a secure online portal to assess households’ eligibility for the program.

But, critics have noted, it is targeted at households with children, which leaves out seniors, single people and young people on their own. There are also roughly 1.2 million families that meet this low-income threshold, but the program is capped at 220,000 households, or about 20 per cent. (That goal was based in part on Rogers’s and Telus’s previous experience with how many eligible households take advantage of similar low-cost offers.)

“We are asking the government that the program will increase to the point that every low-income Canadian can have the subsidy," Ms. Ruiz Vargas said. “We believe that this can be doable between the government and telecom companies because there are other countries that have better deals or packages for people, in general.”

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The ACORN study notes Canada ranks in the middle of the Global Broadband Index of internet prices in 50 countries, with a reported average of roughly $72 a month.

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