This column is an opinion by David Fowler, vice-president of marketing and communications at the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) in Ottawa. He currently serves on the board of directors for Media Smarts and CENTR. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
What would you do if your internet connection suddenly stopped working? What if you couldn’t get back online for months? With millions of students across Canada forced to do their schooling from home due to COVID-19, internet access has never been more important.
Unfortunately, high-quality internet connections remain too expensive for some Canadians or are simply unavailable where they live. Meanwhile, students who need the internet more than ever have lost their sources of reliable connection through schools or public libraries.
In 2016, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) declared broadband internet a basic service and set ambitious speed targets that internet service providers (ISPs) have to make available to all Canadians.
Four years later, CRTC data shows that 11 per cent of Canadian households still do not have internet access at home. For those who that do have connections, there are massive disparities between the speeds that rural and urban households receive.
Imagine how difficult online learning, applying for college, or staying in touch with friends and family would be without a high-quality internet connection in your house. Some families and communities have had to go to extraordinary lengths to make sure their kids don’t fall behind.
The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, for example, has told students to hunker down in school parking lots to access free Wi-Fi if they don’t have the internet at home.
In Alberta, rural schools have set up outdoor bins for students who have no internet access to pick up and drop off hard copy assignments.
In Manitoba, the northern Garden Hill First Nation was forced to cancel the remainder of its school year, citing poor internet connectivity and lack of household computer adoption as contributing factors.
Not only are kids without reliable internet access at risk of falling behind in their education, they are putting themselves and their families’ health at risk by venturing out into the world to find an open wi-fi hotspot or pick up school work.
Obviously, education during COVID-19 would be much easier if every child had access to a high-quality internet connection. Unfortunately, connectivity isn’t the only challenge families are facing.
When it comes to bridging the digital divide, getting one internet-connected device per household is tough for many families. Getting one device per child comes at significant financial cost that is often out of reach.
Educators in rural Alberta, for example, report that access to internet-connected devices like laptops, desktop computers and phones is far from universal.
Thankfully schools, school districts, charitable organizations, and various levels of government are stepping up to deliver laptops, tablets, and other devices to students in need.
The Winnipeg School Division estimates that 40 per cent of its students don’t have access to an internet-enabled device at home, and it is looking at lending devices to students until the social distancing restrictions are relaxed.
The city of London, Ont., has distributed more than 10,000 iPads and Chromebooks to students since the pandemic began.
Before the CRTC’s landmark decision in 2016, a lot of public discussion centred on whether the internet was truly a basic service like water or electricity. At the time, skeptics said that videoconferencing and food delivery apps amounted to little more than luxuries.
Flash forward to 2020, and it’s clear that the internet is the key infrastructure holding our education system, economy, and social lives together. From this vantage point, it’s safe to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has settled the “is the internet a basic service?” debate once and for all.
With concerns that widespread social distancing could continue for up to a year and that future waves of the disease could force more school closures down the road, it is essential that we do everything in our power to get all our kids online before a generation is set back.
Closing the digital divide during COVID-19 is a litmus test for internet service providers, educational institutions, and all levels of government across this country. Our children have never needed the internet more to succeed.