Marlène Koffi is an assistant professor in economics at the University of Toronto and a faculty affiliate at the Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society.
The pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated many inequities, including access to a stable, high-speed internet connection – which now, more than ever, sits at the heart of all our daily activities, from work and school to leisure and health care. This digital divide is growing, with the population fragmenting between those with a reliable broadband internet connection and those who face difficult barriers or painful lag in trying to access this essential service.
But this gap predated COVID-19. More than half of rural Canadian households had already reported download speeds below the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) national target of 50 megabits per second (Mbps), while two-thirds of First Nations communities declared the same. It is only now that we’re coming to realize that Canadians living in cities are facing similar challenges: In a January report, Ryerson University’s Brookfield Institute found that 38 per cent of Toronto households (as well as half of the city’s low-income households) suffer through download speeds below the CRTC target.
The issue of broadband internet access has clearly become paramount for the futures of all Canadians. So how can we address this – to make sure people aren’t left behind?
First, we must identify the problem with a data-oriented approach to effective policy-making. Indeed, if we were able to evaluate the needs correctly, it wouldn’t have taken so long for officials to realize that there are internet issues in our cities. Currently, national broadband data information is collected by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada through annual surveys and consultations in partnership with the CRTC and other key stakeholders such as internet service providers. But despite the government’s efforts, the data remains a somewhat coarse aggregation and the numbers are not updated frequently; surveys are also costly.
The government could collaborate with companies that already work with Big Data. Microsoft, for instance, used its large anonymized database to independently identify approximately 160 million Americans who are not using a broadband internet connection – a number more than six times the one reported by the U.S. government in 2018. Such assistance from major tech companies would allow Canadians to have access to more precise, granular and high-frequency data, incurring lower costs in the long run. Moreover, local communities could partner with government in this data-collection process; schools, for example, could help identify vulnerable and bandwidth-needy students and their families.
Measures such as the household subsidy could also be enhanced. This could be a relief for our elderly population, a vulnerable group that tends to be excluded from most subsidy programs, even though the Brookfield Institute found that 48 per cent of Torontonians 60 and older report download speeds below the CRTC standard.
Expanding WiFi networks in schools, businesses and public spaces, as well as the deployment of mobile hot spot technology, would also provide relief to many households. This can be done by distributing them to properly identified households in need or by equipping school buses.
Investing is ultimately the key to solving the problem in the long run. This requires more partnerships between the public and the private sectors. For existing businesses, we can continue to subsidize projects to establish an internet network in remote areas. For startups wishing to enter this market, the government should facilitate their access through financing and supporting projects to encourage them to produce innovative solutions to this problem. In the same vein, it would also be important to encourage local initiatives. In addition, a more competitive market could provide an incentive to capture areas hitherto ignored. Investment can also be accompanied by collaboration between the provincial governments. Pooled funds could provide additional motivation to conquer this new market.
There is an urgent need to find a solution to the issue of internet access. A plan that focuses on identifying the scale of the problem, developing solutions and investing in them would substantially improve the effectiveness of both existing and future policies, help provide adequate subsidies for all households and reduce the cost of investment and infrastructure for investors.
The new normal after the pandemic is likely to involve more remote or online activities. If no straightforward solution is found, the coming years will be characterized by accelerating inequality between different segments of the population, with growing gaps in income and access to knowledge and health services. Many already vulnerable citizens will find themselves in an even more precarious state – and we must summon the bandwidth to help.
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