Regional Internet access: not without adequate funding

By : Maryse Guénette
Photo Credit: Pascal Bernardon (Unsplash)

Not everyone in Canada has equal access to the Internet. Although several civil society organizations say they could help improve this situation, they have difficulty obtaining funding. Following is an overview of the situation.

While most people living in Canada’s major cities have unlimited access to the Internet, the situation is quite different in rural communities where, according to Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) data, only 45.6% of households had that level of access in 2019.

The Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), whose website offers a test that allows anyone to evaluate the performance of their internet connection, is only too familiar with the problem: since it went live in 2015, users have run the test nearly a million times! “The results show pretty consistently that the signal people in rural communities receive is about 10 times slower than in urban areas,” says Josh Tabish, director of public affairs at CIRA. “And in any given area, the more scattered the population, the worse that access is.”

Internet access is also a problem for low-income people living in large cities. In their case, the situation is due primarily to the cost of the Internet. Studies almost always show that Canada has the most expensive wireless Internet in the world,” says Tabish. “Added to that are the challenges faced by people with low digital literacy, who are mostly found in certain communities and among certain groups of citizens.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shed new light on these inequities. As examples, Tabish says that one school board in Ottawa suggested that students who didn’t have high-speed internet at home should go to a Tim Horton’s parking lot to do their homework, while in rural Alberta, schools asked students to go to clearly marked bins to drop off their homework and collect instructions for the next assignment. “Although these situations were confined to the education sector,” he says, “they give a sense of the inequities that exist in internet services across the country.”


Lots of ideas, not much funding

The CIRA study offers several suggestions for improvement. For example, some organizations suggested offering a low-cost basic package for low-income consumers. Others suggested increasing the number of providers to ensure there is more competition. Whichever route is chosen, it will take the effort of all levels of government and of many organizations before things get better. And it will take money.

Through the Community Investment Program, CIRA provides more than $1 million annually to groups working to improve Internet access across Canada (note that the application deadline is April 14). This is apparently one of the only programs of its kind in the country.

In order for there to be a balance between industry perspective and public interest in the policy making process, community groups need access to more funding. Right now, it’s very difficult.“

Josh Tabish, director of public affairs at CIRA

One reason it is so difficult is lack of awareness of the Internet access issue within the philanthropic community. “People who are dedicated to improving the Internet don’t get the same recognition as those who work on the environment, homelessness or mental health,” Tabish says. “So they don’t get the same of support.”

The CIRA’ study shows that the few sources of funding available are often ill-suited to the reality of community groups. One reason for this is that funding is allocated to specific projects rather than to the core mission of the organizations, whereas core funding would be more useful. It should be noted that in the United States, the government has an obligation to provide civil society groups with both project-based funding and core funding.

There is also the fact that non-profits and universities have the same funding sources, which forces them to compete. “This puts community groups at a disadvantage, as they have far more limited resources than the universities,” says Tabish.

There is also the complexity of the funding applications, which require a significant amount of work from the organizations. There is also the complexity of the advocacy processes. Although the report states that the CRTC is open to civil society groups, they have to deal with complicated procedures that “seem to have been created by a lawyer for a lawyer,” Tabish says, and with huge delays in getting costs reimbursed. ”This has a perverse effect,” he says. “Groups that should be participating don’t, because it’s too difficult for them.”

CIRA is working tirelessly to make things better. We want to help develop a tradition of digital funding in Canada because it is sorely needed,” says Tabish. “We’ve produced our report to start the dialogue.” Hopefully, it will be successful.

The study

In the study Unconnected: Funding Shortfalls, Policy Imbalances and How They Are Contributing to Canada’s Digital Underdevelopment, the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) focuses on the challenges faced by nonprofit organizations that are attempting to improve Internet accessibility in Canada. The majority of the data presented in this study was collected from April to June 2020 by the firm The Strategic Counsel. It was conducted via 50 telephone interviews and an online survey with organizations from a variety of government and academic milieus that are working in various ways to promote Internet access, as well as with Aboriginal communities. In August 2020, CIRA conducted interviews to determine the extent of the problem. The study provides a snapshot of digital development in Canada and suggests some solutions.