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Helping low-income youth, families catch the Net

Only slightly more than half of Canada’s poorest households have the Internet, Statistics Canada says.

Jordan Silverman/AP

Rogers Communications Inc. is launching a program in the back-to-school season aimed at bridging the digital divide that separates the poorest of Canada's poor from the Internet.

Called Connected for Success, the initiative will provide cut-rate Internet access, subsidized computers and free software to low-income youth and families in Toronto, with the possibility of expanding elsewhere in Ontario and to other provinces.

About 21 per cent of Canadian households do not have access to the Internet and the cost of service and computers are often major barriers. Only slightly more than half of the poorest households – those with incomes of $30,000 or less – have Internet access, according to Statistics Canada.

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For years, the telecom industry has been criticized for failing to takes steps to bridge that digital divide, especially in large urban centres that are home to an abundance of information-technology infrastructure.

Rob Bruce, president of communications at Rogers, said it is "unfathomable" that Canadians continue to live without the Internet because of cost, and hopes that other service providers will start offering similar programs in short order. "I can't imagine – I've got three boys who are teenagers – how kids could grow up without access to the Internet," he said.

The project, part of the Rogers Youth Fund, which supports educational programs, will begin in Toronto with Toronto Community Housing, which is the largest social housing provider in Canada and the second-largest in North America.

Toronto Community Housing says it has roughly 164,000 tenants in 58,500 households in more than 2,215 buildings and homes. Those who live there are often seniors, families, refugees and people with special needs.

Qualifying participants will have access to broadband Internet for $9.99 a month. That includes download speeds of three megabits per second (Mbps). The monthly usage allowance is 30 gigabytes, but Rogers will not charge overage fees.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has set national speed targets for Internet, including download speeds of at least five Mbps by 2015. It estimates that more than 90 per cent of homes live in areas with that minimum speed available.

As a point of comparison, Rogers's cheapest Internet plan costs $41.49 a month for download speeds of up to six Mbps and a slightly smaller data cap of 20 GB, which the company says can be used to download 4,095 songs, 29 standard-definition movies or 10,240 digital photos.

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Mr. Bruce said the download speed of three Mpbs is useful. "We think this puts us solidly into a very, very usable range where people can have great experiences – whether it is downloading e-mail or doing video or whatever it is they want to do."

A similar program called Connect2Compete has existed in the United States for years. It offers minimum speeds of 1 Mbps and could help up to one-quarter of the 100 million Americans who still don't have Internet at home, according to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

Rogers's program is also being supported by information technology giants Microsoft Canada and Compugen, so participants will have the option to buy a computer for $150 that comes with installed software along with technical support.

Rogers declined to reveal program costs. The company will examine whether it can also be offered in other markets Rogers services, including Ontario cities such as Ottawa, London and Kitchener and communities in New Brunswick and Newfoundland.

Toronto Community Housing will determine the criteria for qualification, but Rogers estimates that one-third to one-half of the social-housing provider's households will take part. Currently, only 20 per cent have Internet, Mr. Bruce said.

Toronto Community Housing president Eugene Jones Jr. called the program "a tremendous opportunity" for youth, but some wonder whether its residents can really afford Internet – even at $9.99 per month.

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After rent is paid, most people living in Toronto Community Housing have less than $1,000 of disposable monthly income left to pay for other costs, such as utilities, transportation and food, said Armine Yalnizyan, a senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. "A lot of these people don't have phones," Ms. Yalnizyan said. "So yeah, it is a real sweet deal, but put it in the context of their budgets, and what else are you asking them to give up?"

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