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Cutting Community Internet Access Program Highlights Absence of Digital Strategy

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Wednesday April 18, 2012
The recent federal budget was a hefty 498 pages, but my weekly technology law column (Ottawa Citizen version, homepage version) notes it still omitted disclosing the decision to eliminate funding for the Community Access Program, Canada's longstanding initiative to provide an Internet access alternative for those without connectivity. The world has changed dramatically since the CAP was first launched in 1995, but the decision to cut it without establishing alternative solutions for low-income Canadians who are not online is a disappointing development that highlights yet again the absence of a national digital strategy from Industry Minister Christian Paradis.

The CAP was once a foundational element in the federal government's effort to connect Canadians. In the late 1990s, many did not have Internet access at home and wireless data plans were still years away. Today, the majority of Canadians have residential broadband access as well as wireless connectivity through their smartphones or other devices.

The decision to cut the CAP therefore does not come as a surprise.

In 2010, it appeared the government was set to cancel the program, bolstered by a 2009 evaluation conducted by the Audit and Evaluation Branch of Industry Canada. The evaluation found that the program was "less aligned with the current priorities" of the government and that "it may have out-lived its usefulness as a means to bring the Internet to communities across Canada."

When letters were sent to local programs notifying them of the impending cuts, the local communities expressed their concern to elected officials. The outrage led then-Industry Minister Tony Clement to quickly reverse the decision, chalking up the notification letters to a funding misunderstanding.

Changes in Internet access rates may have made the CAP an obvious target for elimination, but fostering universal access to the Internet is more important than ever. As governments embrace open government initiatives and shift toward electronic delivery of services, ensuring that all Canadians have Internet access becomes an absolute necessity.

Yet the 2010 Statistics Canada Internet Use survey found that many low-income Canadians do not have Internet access at home. While 97% of Canadians in the top income quartile have access, that number drops to 54% for those in the bottom quartile. In other words, nearly half of all Canadians with incomes of $30,000 or less do not have ready access to the Internet.

For those Canadians, the issue is not whether Internet access is available but rather whether it is affordable, particularly when combined with the need to invest in computing equipment. The CAP helped address the affordability gap by ensuring that thousands of Canadians - even those without a computer or who found that monthly access charges were beyond their means - would have access to the Internet.

The CAP may have needed retooling, but there remains a Canadian digital divide that should be addressed. By comparison, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission teamed up with cable and technology companies last year to launch Connect-to-Compete, which promises to bring computers and Internet access to low-income households.  

The program, which will officially launch in September, includes a commitment from the cable companies to offer $10 a month broadband Internet access to homes with children that are eligible for free school lunches. Moreover, families can purchase a refurbished computer for $150 or a new one from Microsoft for $250. For those without computer expertise, Best Buy's Geek Squad will offer basic digital literacy training in 20 cities around the country.

For thousands of Canadians that relied on the CAP, its elimination raises the real prospect of being cut off from the Internet. The failure to identify alternatives that support affordable access to Internet services and computers, along with the necessary skills development, places the spotlight once again on Canada's missing digital strategy.
Comments (9)add comment

Ki said:

...
Not overly surprised. The only thing this government cares about are the resources they can sell to other countries.
April 18, 2012

Michael Jensen said:

...
As a formerly-urban technologist now living a pretty rural Canadian life, I'm astonished by the people for whom CAP is a key lifeline. Yes, perhaps they could be forced to get their own. Or a third of them could.

But really, if you want to enlist all Canadians in digital interactions, CAP is about the best I can imagine. Perhaps only once or twice a week, the email is checked. But by golly, it's checked.

Maybe wait another five to ten years? Social dynamics and habits don't change overnight.

We just got "high speed broadband" wireless in rural Nova Scotia, about two years ago.

Let's be sure we don't cut off those who need it most.
April 18, 2012

Sally said:

This is wrong
Cutting the funds and suspending the provided to CAP support is really wrong. This is program that is totally focused on the needs of people with low incomes and have not the opportnity to maintain regular Internet connection. Depriving people from this necessity is a huge injustice.
Vermont Vacation
April 19, 2012

Jay said:

I've worked at a CAP center...
I've worked at a community center that had a CAP facility. It was used primarily for watching YouTube, streaming video from sports sites, and running BitTorrent to pirate television and music. At times, the network was so congested with traffic from the CAP center that the internet was unusable for anything else.

Sadly, I think only a small fraction of people were using CAP facilities for their originally intended purpose.
April 19, 2012

Derek said:

I worked for CAP
My first job was through CAP teaching people to use computers/internet in my local Library.
April 19, 2012

Michael Jensen said:

...
As a formerly-urban technologist now living a pretty rural Canadian life, I'm astonished by the people for whom CAP is a key lifeline, and was proud of Nova Scotia and Canada for their support of CAP. Yes, perhaps these individuals could be forced to get their own accounts. Or a third of them could. Or hardly any.

But really, if you want to enlist all Canadians in the digital environment, CAP is about the best approach I can imagine. Perhaps only once or twice a week, their email is checked. But by golly, they check it.

Maybe wait another five to ten years to do this? Social dynamics and habits don't change overnight, and the savings are minimal.

Here in rural Nova Scotia, it was only two years ago that got "high speed broadband" wireless.

Let's be sure we don't cut off those who need it most.
April 19, 2012

Doug Webb said:

This is about silencing the poor
If they can't be heard, they aren't there. That is Conservative policy on the poor.
April 19, 2012

Joseph said:

...
I agree with Doug. This regime does not listen to anything the average Canadian has to say, especially if it is in opposition to their "Grand Plan".
April 19, 2012

Judy pickett said:

Citizen of Canada
I have been able to access community internet through very slow dial up which has allowed me to volunteer for Corrections Service Canada for two terms. As a person with a disability having access to this program is my lifeline to be productive and be in touch with world events. This government is out of touch with the needs of people.
April 23, 2012

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