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simon houpt

In the 14th year of the 21st century, which technology do you think is more essential: public pay phones or broadband Internet access?

Funny, that. This week, when the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission rebuffed a request by Bell Canada and two of its regional operators to raise the top price of a local cash pay phone call to $1 from 50 cents, the regulator noted that "pay phone service is an important public service, especially for Canadians who earn low income and those that live in rural and remote communities." The companies say they will probably remove phones they can't afford to maintain, so the CRTC is thinking about making it harder to yank a community's last remaining pay phone.

But when it comes to broadband Internet access at home, what is the commission's position on those same low-income Canadians?

Funny, that. It doesn't have one.

Last week, David Cohen, an executive vice-president of the U.S. cable and media company Comcast Corp., told a gathering of minority media executives that he believes broadband access may be one of the most important civil-rights issues of the current century.

According to the trade publication Broadcasting & Cable, Mr. Cohen referred to next month's 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech. "Civil-rights advocates of 50 years ago fought and ultimately won the battle for equal rights," he was quoted as saying. "But the battle for equal opportunity continues. And that battle won't be won, so long as we have people stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide, because broadband technology is fast becoming the most essential tool for full participation in American society."

To be sure, Mr. Cohen's speech was one part tub-thumping and one part chest-beating: Comcast launched a program to offer low-income Americans inexpensive access to broadband Internet as a way of currying favour with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in the company's effort to get the green light for the takeover of NBCUniversal. Comcast got its regulatory approval, and households with kids on school lunch programs got $9.95 monthly Internet.

But the same civic impulse that made public libraries a vital part of modern life – driven by both moral and economic imperatives – forces us to recognize that Mr. Cohen is correct: If you believe that the Internet is indispensable, then we need to find a way to make it easily accessible to all, on a 24-hour basis.

In Canada, according to telecommunications consultant Mark Goldberg, about 18 per cent of households do not have broadband access at home; that includes about half of those in the bottom 20 per cent of the country's earners.

Last month, Rogers Communications Inc. took a first step toward helping to change things. Going one better than Comcast, Rogers announced Connect for Success, which later this year will begin to offer slimmed-down broadband access for $9.99 a month, along with a computer for $150 and free software to youth living in Toronto Community Housing. "It's unfathomable that Canadians are living without Internet access today because they simply cannot afford it," said Rob Bruce, Rogers president of communications.

It's a laudable start. We don't know all the details yet, but Connect for Success, a program of the Rogers Youth Fund, does not appear as if it will be available to households without kids. That needs to be addressed and eventually changed: Those in school aren't the only ones who need high-speed access to the Internet at home, especially as Canada continues to lurch toward a knowledge-based economy. Industry Canada, which is now under the direction of James Moore, the highly regarded former minister of Canadian heritage, could take the lead.

Other telcos need to jump on board, especially Telus Corp., Shaw Communications Inc. and Bell, which, with Rogers, have the lion's share of the market. (Bell's parent company, BCE Inc., owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.) And the hundreds of indie ISPs across the country can't shirk their responsibilities here by hiding under their no-name brands.

Almost three years ago, the CRTC held hearings into the digital divide between those in rural areas and their city-slicker cousins, in an effort to prod companies to build better infrastructure in remote regions. That's the kind of issue that pays political dividends, especially for a ruling federal party that depends on rural areas for its base.

But while government prodding has helped to shrink that gap (except in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, which are still woefully underserved), millions of Canadians living in buildings that are already cabled can't spare the few dollars it would take to get them plugged in.

It's time we helped them all join the 21st century. For their sake, and ours.