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Canada’s Digital Divide and the Path to Digital Equity for All Ages

August 9, 2022

We’ve all likely encountered the occasional dreaded message “Your internet connection is unstable” during a zoom meeting, or experienced buffering when watching a YouTube video. These experiences are often met with annoyance, frustration, and exasperation but are quickly resolved when the connection restores. Now imagine what it would be like to deal with this every day. The internet is part of our daily routines and is no longer “nice to have”; it is essential for participation in an increasingly digital world. The Covid-19 pandemic exposed the disparities in internet access, as Canadians took to the internet to work, socialize, and stay informed like never before. Access to the internet is hindered by a lack of adequate infrastructure in rural and remote communities as well as a lack of affordable options for high-speed broadband internet. These barriers are still too common in a high-income country such as Canada, which is increasingly moving toward a digital-by-default system, where  phone, paper and in-person services are moved online. 

Canada’s Digital Charter, developed by the Federal Government, consists of 10 core principles that serve as areas of focus for improving the digital landscape in Canada. The Charter includes the principle of universal access: “All Canadians will have equal opportunity to participate in the digital world and the necessary tools to do so, including access, connectivity, literacy and skills.” In keeping with this, the government has announced Canada’s Connectivity Strategy, which aims to connect 95% of Canadians to high-speed internet by 2026, and 100% by 2030. Despite this initiative, Canadians experience a distinct digital divide where many communities are left without access to high-speed broadband internet. This growing gap hinges on socioeconomic inequities, and leaves many older Canadians in the dark.  

Who is left behind?

Internet use is lower among older Canadians, with an estimated 68% of older adults using the internet, compared to 97% of individuals aged 15-64 years. Yet, this demographic can stand to gain the most from a connected lifestyle. Internet use among older adults has been associated with increased life satisfaction and social support, as well as decreased loneliness and depression. Connecting older adults to the internet can support healthy aging and aging in place by providing a platform to engage with family and friends, connect them to their healthcare providers, and for information-seeking. Therefore, it is imperative that the barriers to internet access are removed in order to support the full participation of older adults in society. 

Broadband internet access is fragmented across Canada, with access based largely on where you live and how much you can pay. According to the Canadian Radio Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), on average, 89.7% of Canadians have access to broadband internet at 50 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 10 Mbps upload speeds, with the other 10.3% accounting for 1.6 million households. Of these 1.6 million households, 1.5 million households are located in rural areas, 26,300 households are in Northern communities, and 81,500 households are on First Nations reserves. The urban-rural divide is stark, with rural area internet speeds averaging 5.5 Mbps compared to 50 Mbps speeds in urban centres

Canada has one of the highest internet costs globally. For internet speeds of between 41 to 100 Mbps, Canada ranked third most expensive among the United States, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Australia. In 2021, the lowest advertised cost of broadband internet for the CRTC-recommended speeds in Canada was $77.98/month or $935.76/year. For older adults, many of whom are living on fixed-incomes, the cost to purchase a device and monthly internet is out of reach. Income is related to internet use, with lower-income households reporting lower rates of use. For example, only 54.1% of older adults with incomes under $20,000 reported internet use, compared to 73.0% of older adults with incomes between $60,000-$79,000, and 79.4% of those with incomes over $100,000. These statistics demonstrate the need for affordable internet to reduce the inequities experienced by low-income older adults. 

Bridging the Digital Divide & The Connecting Families Initiative

In an effort to increase the accessibility and affordability of broadband internet, the government introduced the Connecting Families initiative in 2017. The program relies on voluntary participation from Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to provide affordable internet plans to low-income families (the government is not subsidizing this program). In the first phase of the project, plans were offered at $10/month for 100GB of data and at least 10 Mbps download speed. 

In August 2021, Connecting Families 2.0 was introduced, expanding eligibility to low-income older adults. This represented a positive step forward in bridging the digital divide for older Canadians. The new plan provides internet for $20.00/month for 200 GB at the CRTC recommended 50/10 Mbps or “the fastest available in the region.” Eligible older adults must receive the maximum Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), and this program is slated to be available until 2027.

In the first phase of the project, criticisms emerged in relation to internet speed, limited capacity, and non-inclusive eligibility for the program. Participation was capped at 220,000 families—reaching only a fraction of those in need, as evidenced by a 2019 estimate demonstrating  that 349,000 Canadians over the age of 65 lived in poverty. The 10 Mbps speed provided was not adequate, causing some families to opt-out of the program completely. Additionally, due to the voluntary nature of the ISPs engagement, if a voluntary ISP is not offered in that area, even eligible households will not be able to enroll. For example, Eastlink, a telecommunications company based in Halifax, did not opt into the federal program, sparking a protest led by the advocacy group ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), which advocates for Internet for All

The Connecting Families Initiative should consider expanding eligibility to reach more families and older adults in the future. While the Connecting Families Initiative addresses the barrier of affordability, subsidizing the internet for some groups will not solve the digital divide if there continues to be a lack of infrastructure. A one-dimensional approach will not solve Canada’s internet problem, rather a multi-faceted approach addressing affordability, accessibility, and education is necessary to bridge the digital divide. 

On The Path to Digital Equity

Eliminating the digital divide also requires active and intentional community programming focused on digital literacy. HelpAge Canada, in response to the growing need to improve digital literacy amongst older adults, launched the Dig-IT program. This program partners with community organizations to provide an all-in-one digital literacy package, including devices, data, education, and technical support for older adults living with low income. The 10-week program begins with the very basics, teaching participants to locate the power button and progresses to more advanced topics in the final weeks, such as how to use Zoom. “Gabrielle”, a program participant in Dig-IT,  has learned to use the tablet to email with friends and family living internationally, attend church virtually, listen to music, and stay up to date on current events. I think it’s good that we have an organization like you guys [HelpAge Canada]… I think this is wonderful. It’s absolutely wonderful, I’m so happy I had that chance. I’m very, very happy. Because it takes me to a different level.” 

The Connecting Families and Dig-IT initiatives are two examples of how to promote digital inclusion and are a step forward in advancing digital equity. While addressing the affordability and accessibility of the internet is essential, this is only the first step to bridging the digital divide. Equipping older adults with the digital literacy skills needed to engage with the internet is equally important as demonstrated by the Dig-IT program. When the barriers to accessing the internet and technology are removed, older adults are opened to a digital world of possibilities. The path to digital equity is arduous and costly, with heavy investment needed to bring this objective to fruition. However, improving digital equity is necessary to support older adults and other marginalized groups with full inclusion and participation in society. Digital equity much like the internet isn’t a ‘nice to have’ but a necessity and right for all Canadians. For now, we have to advocate for a future where participation in the digital world doesn’t hinge on income or geographic location.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of SCSC.

Photo by Eduardo Barrios on Unsplash