Low-income Canadians are taking money out of their budgets for food, recreation and rent to pay for Internet service, according to a new report that is calling for a national affordable home Internet program.
“The Internet plays an important role in the everyday lives of low-income earners,” says the study by ACORN Canada, a national organization of low- and moderate-income families with 70,000 members in nine cities across the country.
“However, the high costs of obtaining high-speed home Internet connections can lead to unnecessary hardship,” says the report being released Tuesday.
The advocacy group wants the federal Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to mandate a $10-per-month high-speed home Internet product for families and individuals living below Statistics Canada’s low income measure (LIM). In 2013 the LIM was $20,933 for an individual and $41,866 for a family of four, after taxes.
Lack of access to the Internet excludes low-income Canadians from equal opportunities to education, employment, government services and modern civic participation, said ACORN Toronto spokeswoman Alejandra Ruiz Vargas.
“Many members of ACORN experience this,” she said in an interview. “It leads to social isolation because you can’t connect with your friends and relatives. And it leads to poverty because you can’t look for jobs or fill out job applications.”
A survey of almost 400 ACORN members last summer showed 83.5 per cent feel Internet service is “extremely expensive.” Of those, almost 59 per cent said they skimped on other budget items to pay for Internet service because they need it.
About 8 per cent either don’t have home Internet service or have cancelled it due to the high cost.
Toronto single mother Kashima Wright had to give up her home Internet last fall when the bills began to top $100 a month. Now she and her 6-year-old daughter Nalise have to walk to the local library to go online.
“I just couldn’t afford it anymore,” said Wright, 25, a personal support worker who earns about $1,700 a month after taxes and pays more than $1,200 a month in rent.
“I don’t want my daughter to fall behind in school,” Wright said. “But it’s not always easy to get to the library to help her with her homework.”
The Toronto chapter of the Elementary Teacher’s Federation of Ontario (ETFO) has been involved in ACORN’s “digital divide” campaign for over a year as a way to help level the playing field for students in public education.
“Every day our members see inequity in the classroom between those kids who have Internet at home and those who don’t,” said ETFO’s Toronto president John Smith, who represents about 11,000 teachers in the city.
Although all schools have Internet connections, access is limited by the amount and quality of computer equipment, which is often better in wealthier areas where parents raise money to support digital learning, he said.
“It needs to be available in the home because that is where students — especially at the elementary level — do a lot of their homework and research,” Smith said.
In August 2013, Rogers Communications, Compugen and Microsoft Canada began offering high-speed Internet service for $9.99 a month and $150 computers to about 58,000 subsidized households in Toronto Community Housing.
To date, more than 10,000 families are participating in the initiative, which provides Internet at speeds of 10 Mbps. But tens of thousands of low-income families in subsidized units managed by other non-profits as well as those in market-rent apartments are still without access.
“We believe the Internet is a fundamental part of everyday life — from school work to staying connected with our families,” said Jennifer Kett, a spokeswoman for Rogers’ Connected for Success program. “We’ll continue to monitor the response ... as we look towards future plans.”
Rogers recently introduced a lower-cost $25-per-month Internet program for all customers that provides 5 Mbps download speeds, Kett added.
The CRTC, which has been investigating affordability in telecommunications, is holding public hearings on the issue in April.
“Internet costs in Canada are high and we don’t have anything in place to accommodate people in low income,” said Elizabeth McIsaac, president of the Maytree Foundation. The charitable foundation, which views fighting poverty as a matter of human rights, is working with ACORN to ensure low-income people struggling with the high cost of Internet service can participate in the CRTC hearings.
“This seems like a tangible example of how rights and addressing issues of poverty go hand in hand,” said McIsaac. “The CRTC review creates a window of opportunity to bring forward that voice of lived experience.”