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Public Wi-Fi Could Help Eliminate Toronto’s Digital Divide

Experts say Toronto's low-income residents need better, cheaper access to the internet.

Toronto is lagging far behind other Canadian and North American cities in terms of affordable internet access, say several people close to the issue.

The problem was thrown into sharp relief last month when Rogers started its Connected for Success program, which offers affordable broadband internet to residents of Toronto Community Housing properties.

A survey by Rogers found that only 20 per cent of TCH tenants had internet connections.

And the problem isn’t limited to social housing. A 2010 Harvard report on global internet usage found that Canada has some of the most expensive, slowest internet service in the developed world. Also in 2010, a Statistics Canada survey found that 97 per cent of households in the top income quartile—$87,000 or more—had home internet access, compared with as few as 54 per cent of households in the lowest quartile, $30,000 or less.

Councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s) has criticized the City’s failure to provide free Wi-Fi in public spaces.

Matlow has sent a written request to city council asking that a pilot Wi-Fi scheme be implemented in Nathan Phillips Square by the end of 2014, with continued rollout through 2015. The idea has its basis in a pilot project launched seven years ago. The City of Toronto partnered with Toronto Hydro to provide free wireless internet to the public in the downtown core. The experiment faltered when it became a pay-for-use service hardly distinguishable from services offered by for-profit corporations like Rogers and Bell.

The City hasn’t revisited the idea, although the TTC is currently trying to bring Wi-Fi access to some subway platforms, and Toronto Public Library continues to offer free Wi-Fi at all its branches.

Gabe Sawhney, who runs the non-profit Wireless Toronto, a volunteer-run organization that helps businesses and public spaces provide Wi-Fi hot spots, believes there is a “great deal of opportunity” to offer more free Wi-Fi in the city.

The question, he says, is what model to use, and who pays. For example, in cities like NYC and San Francisco, private enterprises have stepped up and borne the cost of Wi-Fi in public areas.

“These are conversations we need to have,” he said.

Sawhney, who co-founded Wireless Toronto in 2005, said the organization now operates free public Wi-Fi in 12 locations across the city, including at St. Lawrence Market and Harbourfront Centre.

“The environment has changed so much now from what it was in 2005, with data plans on phones becoming so much more affordable,” he said.

“That said, the issue is no less important. And those who are least able to advocate for themselves are the very people who don’t have access to Wi-Fi: people who don’t have smartphones, or can’t afford data plans, and tourists.”

On the residential side, Acorn, a community activism group, maintains that Toronto’s “digital divide” excludes low-income individuals and families from what it calls a basic human right.

Leader Natalie Hunt said digital access is an issue of serious concern, because Canada is now a web-centric society and everyone needs access to the internet.

Hunt said her organization blames high prices on the “Big Three” telecommunications companies: Rogers, Bell, and Telus, which dominate the market.

Hunt added that Rogers has taken a step in the right direction with its TCH initiative, but that uptake in the program has yet to be demonstrated.

A Rogers spokesperson did not respond to questions about the new program.


  • HotDang

    Municipal wifi would be great, but we should also be seriously talking about municipal broadband with last mile fiber.

    • tyrannosaurus_rek

      We should be talking about making the infrastructure public and leasing out portions of it to telecom companies, as we do with the OTA broadcast spectrum.

      • Testu

        Thank you. I’ve been saying that for years.

        A system like that would allow a non-profit to offer internet service to low income families at a significantly reduced cost (with infrastructure leased from the government at a similarly reduced price). Basically what Rogers is offering TCH but with better reach and without the profit motive.

  • OgtheDim

    Given the entry point for internet access these days seems to be smartphones and tablets, wifi would be a good idea.

    Corps would be willing to pay for this.

    Somebody should be asking.

    • Testu

      “Corps would be willing to pay for this.”

      Are you sure? Why would they? How would they monetize free public internet without making it essentially useless?

      There are a lot of things corporations could put their money towards (subways?), but without a significant profit or PR incentive, why would they?

      • Matthew

        They would because corporations want to reach eyeballs.
        FREE Wi-Fi can present paid for content along side of regular content. The consumer is used to navigating past ads already, its not a big inconvenience.
        There is still a good value proposition to the consumer who gets virtually unlimited Internet access (including Skype, etc) in convenient places like high-traffic shopping areas of a city and public spaces throughout them.
        Matthew Pope
        Yonge Networks

        • Testu

          In this context we’re looking at providing internet access for low income folks, they need to be able to use it to access government services, banking, etc.

          You can’t inject ads into https sessions without completely breaking https. Meaning gov’t service pages, online banking, Facebook, and Twitter don’t work with an ad-injection model. Which is why I asked “How would they monetize free public internet without making it essentially useless?”

          What are they going to offer that will still be useful for low income folks who need to use these services?

        • Testu

          Ah, I see your company wants to sell this specific service .

          Surely you can respond to the comment below asking how your ad supported model works for people who need to use it for banking and government services.

  • NotAnIdealist

    You have to ask:

    Almost every effort on municipal wifi access has been thwarted. Big corps hate it. It undermines their revenue model and market share. City owned Toronto Hydro sold it’s wifi service and fibre network to Cogeco because the city wanted a fast buck to balance their budget. Why didn’t the city provide this basic right to the poor?

    Corporate interests are not aligned with the interests of the marginalized. Until these opposing interests are met with common ground, I think we’re just daydreaming. Sorry if I sound like I’m shooting down a noble cause. It costs millions to manage a citywide network. It was far too easy for the City of Toronto to sell out than to hold the higher ground.

    • OgtheDim

      What par of ” in cities like NYC and San Francisco, private enterprises have stepped up and borne the cost of Wi-Fi in public areas.” did you not understand?

      Stereotypes of the other, whether it be those who are marginalised or private enterprise are less then helpful.

  • Gabe Sawhney

    For what it’s worth: Wireless Toronto has well over 12 hotspots. There’s a map here:

  • Tbilisi Loves You

    Even Tbilisi, Georgia offers free Internet access to city residents. Tbilisi, Georgia! Shows you how far behind and muddled by monied interests Toronto is.

  • nevilleross

    Hey Timothy, that’s what raising taxes (on the wealthy assholes that need to have their taxes raised to pay their fair share of living here) is for.