Humanity remains in the throws of digital infancy, however a stark difference remains between marginalized communities and those above them on the socioeconomic ladder in regards to internet access.
“Just 59 per cent of the lowest income households have internet access compared with 98 per cent of the highest income households. ‘Right now, two-thirds of our lowest income earners have cellphones, compared with nearly 96 per cent of our highest income earners.’” (http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/crtc-communications-costs-1.3285809)
In order to function in the new digital economy, people need access, not just to basic technology, but smart technology that is slowly becoming the bedrock of modern life. A multitude of resources, such as online education tools, job opportunities, essential services, and communication require regular access to the internet. Not to mention that the vast majority of information and entertainment media is now online, thus further disenfranchising to those without access to smart technology.
Something that is often not discussed is the role of our society in providing access to the World Wide Web. Increasing access to smart technology will help towards narrowing the opportunity and information gap we see today among different socioeconomic classes and help towards building a more inclusive society. To enable this discussion, we propose three things to consider when talking about bridging the digital divide.
Government & the subsidization of privilege
Government subsidizes privilege.
Those words need contextualizing. The government doesn’t set out saying “let’s make the lives of those who are better off than others easier” but due to certain policies, or lack thereof, those in society who are higher on the socioeconomic ladder undoubtedly reap the benefits of many public and private initiatives while many are left behind.
A simple example is access to the internet. The near-monopoly of Canadian telecommunications service providers currently have a whole host of restrictions on internet usage and accessibility, as well as limits on access to the “smart” technology that is becoming more common and tied to essential avenues of information and services (more on this below). This is crucial in understanding why it is so important that no one is left without access to the internet something the UN has called a “basic human right”.
It is then the public sector – federal, provincial and municipal – that must take the first steps in providing market incentives for telecommunications companies as well as other small businesses who aim to bring the internet to as many people as possible, free of superfluous restrictions.
Data caps & lack of competition
Currently, in Canada, publicly available and free internet is a difficult resource to harness. Wi-Fi is becoming more ubiquitous, yet even in big cities it remains a luxury. Even when someone is able to tap into a Wi-Fi cloud in public spaces like the airport or busy mall, they are often restricted in their use by time limits. Small businesses to large franchises often restrict their wireless and local networks, including those used in homes, are often private. Further, Canada is one of the few countries that has restrictive data caps in place and the only one of the OECD bloc which has caps on wired internet. Compared to those countries, Canada ranks amongst the highest in terms of pricing brackets and internet services in general have have seen a steady price increase in consequent years for the exact same services.
If one wanted to truly take part in, the internet and all it affords, it will cost: roughly $85 for a mobile plan with data or $68 for wireless internet service with a 50 gb data cap per month, plus the cost of physical capital – a high price to pay for an essential service.
One factor, which enables the 3 major telecommunication companies, Telus, Bell, and Rogers to offer higher than average prices is the lack of competition. The Big 3 telecommunications companies hold control over both the internet and mobile markets and act as gatekeepers to internet access in Canada.
This poses a few problems. Firstly it stifles entry to the market and therefore limits growth. Smaller companies are unable to compete, due to the large initial investment required and the Big 3’s ability to take short term losses or buyout companies (as seen with Mobilicity merger). Secondly, it limits innovation in the telecommunication industry, as the Big 3 simply do not have an incentive to invest in new tech. Finally, the large profits and influence of the Big 3 can be used to lobby politically or publicly, and sway opinion so that future telecommunication policy decisions are in the best interests of the conglomerates. In the end, consumers lose as they are forced to pay for above average prices for subpar services.
In light of these problems, we suggest the government and the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) need to once again look at how the government can enact policy towards truly achieving open internet access. We recommend that they look at subsidies that help smaller companies compete, loosen regulation, perhaps allow foreign investment, and finally regulate the market with incentives or regulations that force companies to cater to growing needs of the population.
Moving towards inclusive digital infrastructure
Another issue, noted above, is that smartphones are not commonly available to marginalized communities, meaning they lack the resources to access large web domains and other services via easy-to-use applications.
As we’ve already mentioned, the government and other public or private organizations don’t explicitly make it their mission to shut out large swathes of the population – though this is inadvertently the result of always catering to specific socioeconomic demographics. The government should take it upon themselves to make the internet, and its increasing range of free services, available to those who need it the most, via innovative policy that addresses the dearth of internet accessibility in denser urban areas (like the Downtown Eastside, where so many struggle with the bare fundamentals of daily life).
One way to do this is to increase the number of public spaces (like popular city squares, libraries, malls, parks, etc) where Wi-Fi is available, free of time limits or data caps. The government, or even large telecommunications’ providers, can develop mesh networks that take advantage of Wi-Fi hotspots across urban areas (like the Shaw Open initiative, but open to everyone). These kinds of initiatives have long been the norm in countries like Japan, and have led to a more equitable political, economic and social transformation where more people are engaged with the online world.
Another thing would be to mandate recycling of smartphones. As consumer try to stay on top of latest trends in smart tech, too many phones are either thrown away or lying in drawers rather than being re-used, despite being functional. One solution is to set up public smartphone depots where phones and other “essential” technologies can be donated and made available to those who cannot afford them. These phones can be refurbished and distributed for free or for a small fee that could go towards supporting the running of the depot. This would at the very least alleviate some of the issues that people on the streets face in their daily lives – things the rest of us take for granted.
Simple, yet comprehensive digital infrastructure could also be enhanced by basic education programs facilitated by non-profits or government societies, such as subsidizing coursework on the fundamentals of digital technology, literacy or smart technology use. Since many of these things are not often taught, but are often picked up by the majority of people as they grow up, we tend to think that anyone given a smartphone or other piece of “smart” technology will immediately be able to use its interface. But people require education (and practice) not only on how to use such technologies, but also on how useful technology can be in improving access to many services available to the public.
The government can take a lead on this by subsidizing these initiatives or rewarding telecommunications companies who take steps to be inclusive of lower-income individuals. An example of this type of program can be found in India, where significant portions of urban populations live under the international poverty line, and yet have access to the internet via low-cost smartphones, made available by public initiatives.
As our media ecosystems continue to evolve, we must begin to find solutions which will help promote much needed innovation in telecommunications but most importantly leave no one behind. Inclusivity and equity should be policy goals and not externalities.