Governments Must Do More to Provide Critical Internet Access to Low Income Households
There was a time when Internet access was a luxury – a ‘nice to have,’ – but that time has long since past. Now, with COVID-19, Internet access is an essential lifeline to health appointments, school, work, food and medicine deliveries, banking, government emergency funding – and so much more.
Every household needs Internet access.
With the novel coronavirus, not having Internet access can mean the difference between life and death. Having to leave the household for essential goods and services, instead of accessing them online from the safety of your home, can mean risking your safety and that of your loved ones.
Yet Internet access remains unaffordable for many Canadians.
Almost 9% of children and adults – 3.2 million Canadians – currently live in poverty. And in some rural, remote and northern regions of the country where access is prohibitively expensive, Internet access remains unaffordable even for middle-income families.
As part of their COVID-19 emergency policies, all levels of government need to make Internet access a priority for all Canadians – right now.
Governments provide other essential infrastructure, such as electricity and water, and have important programs in place to make sure our low-income households are provided for and not left without these essential services. COVID-19 has made clear that it is time Internet access was included in the list of critical infrastructure our governments must make accessible and affordable to all Canadians.
In our front-line work, we see the complexities of poverty magnified by COVID-19, and the lack of Internet access has become one of the leading concerns raised by our clients, acting as a barrier to so many essential needs and services.
As community and health service providers, we listened when one little girl, waiting with her mom for a food hamper, asked for a computer so she could talk to her teachers and do her assigned work. A senior told us how she couldn’t join her church’s Easter services without Internet access, and how she’s missing her grandchildren and feels lost without her weekly social group. A new immigrant family to Canada wonders how they will apply for the necessary programs and the relief benefits they are entitled to.
With libraries and schools closed, there is no back up plan for families who can’t afford home Internet. This leaves them at a significant disadvantage. These daily stories we hear speak of the essential need for universal Internet access.
The federal government saw this coming. They have committed to providing access to high speed Internet for everyone by 2030 – but these families can’t wait.
ACORN, a national organization of low- and moderate-income families, conducted a survey of their membership before the pandemic and learned that 20% of low-income households (below $30,000 annually) had no home Internet, with the majority identifying cost as the main reason. For those with home Internet, a whopping 65% said they had to sacrifice food or medication to afford it.
This is why we are endorsing ACORN’s call for the federal government to offer all low income Canadians and fixed-income seniors “free retail Internet access services” and to work with telecom companies to ensure there is no extra cost for data, no overage charges, no price increases for customers and no disconnections for non-payments or other reasons during the pandemic.
We further call on all levels of government to work together with telecom businesses to provide hardware, software and IT support to all those facing income inequality.
Governments and telecoms can work with the non-profit sector to provide discounted and donated devices to people in households of need. They should also provide IT training and/or troubleshooting solutions to those receiving and setting up devices through this program.
Further, governments should make Internet access freely available during the pandemic to all subsidized housing buildings and complexes and to shelters of all kinds (to be maintained after the pandemic by expanding the existing federal Connecting Families program).
In order for our country to pull through this crisis together, united, and with no person or community left behind, we must stay connected.
Right now, many of us are dependent on our online connections as literal lifelines – to work, to family, to our communities and their supports and services. For the millions of Canadians who can’t access these vital online supports, it’s time for our political and business leaders to step up.
Let’s get Canada connected.
Sharmini Fernando is the Executive Director of the Syme Woolner Neighbourhood and Family Centre.
Julie Callaghan is the Senior Director, Community Health and Quality at Unison Health and Community Services.