Public Wi-Fi Could Help Eliminate Toronto's Digital Divide
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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.