Mark Goldberg

Examining the digital income divide

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, ACORN Canada, released a study [“Barriers to Digital Equality in Canada“] that aims to “shine a light on the urgent need to tackle [the] barriers to ensure equal access to digital opportunities.”

This is a theme that I have discussed frequently on these pages for more than a decade. Government programs have distributed billions of dollars to expand broadband networks based on geographic considerations, without regard to affordability. Typically, we have seen government funding focus on expanding supply rather than addressing demand through efforts aimed at affordability or digital literacy. See these posts for example:

Unfortunately, the ACORN study fell short of its objective. In its Introduction, the study cites a government statistic that says “Almost half of households with an annual income of $30,000 or less do not have high-speed internet access.” But ACORN conducted its own survey of 472 respondents and found 80% of those with household incomes of less than $30,000 had an internet connection. Either the government statistic is out of date or ACORN’s survey is not representative, or both. I suspect it is both. Statistics Canada data shows that 89% of Canadian households had an internet connection by year-end 2017. The data point of roughly 50% of low income households lacking a connection is very old – it was reported by Statistics Canada in its “Daily” on May 25, 2011, reporting on the results of the Canadian Internet Use Survey.

The Connecting Families initiative, a program funded entirely by the telecommunications industry, has gone a long way in helping to get affordable computers and broadband connections into low income households with school-aged children, thanks to the driving by leadership at TELUS and Rogers. This was always my first target: helping to bridge what FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has termed the Homework Gap.

Frankly, I was disappointed with the quality of the ACORN research study. There is not a very big difference between the 80% adoption rate among low income households in the ACORN study and the current 89% adoption rate among all Canadian households. How does this “shine a light on the urgent need to tackle … barriers to ensure equal access to digital opportunities”? I have no doubt that there is a problem; I am not persuaded that ACORN has illuminated the subject.

We need to understand the factors that are inhibiting universal broadband adoption. That will require more research, improved data and increased dialog among stakeholders. Canada’s Internet Registry Authority (CIRA) apparently supported the development of the ACORN report through its Community Investment Program. Perhaps CIRA should consider commissioning better quality research on its own, to contribute to the development of policies that further its objective “to build a better online Canada.”

Comments are closed.