Toronto City Council just approved the plan for ConnectTO on Friday and it is already a failure, having lost sight of its mission before it even got started.
In presenting its plan for “Affordable Internet Connectivity for All”, the proponents for ConnectTO lined up representatives from ACORN Canada, a community union of low and moderate income people, who passionately argued “The programs need to be put in place now, not tomorrow. Now.”
The plan approved by Toronto’s City Council won’t do a thing now, tomorrow, next month or even this summer. It isn’t even clear that it will deliver on ACORN’s needs when it is launched sometime late this year or in 2022. Or ever for that matter.
The problem is that Toronto is trying to fit a technology solution into a problem that isn’t technical.
During the council meeting this past Friday, Councillor James Pasternak asked a direct question: “A few years ago many of our neighbourhoods that were torn up by Bell Canada, maybe Rogers as well. Are we targeting neighbourhoods that were excluded from those private sector fibre optic investments?”
If you watch the video, you will see Toronto’s Chief Technology Officer, Lawrence Eta, seeming somewhat evasive in providing a direct answer. It should have been an easy answer, something along the lines of, “Councillor Pasternak, Toronto is blessed with having some of the world’s fastest internet speeds and virtually every residential address in the city has access to multiple broadband service providers.” The city was told that by a 2017 study: “CRTC-defined broadband speeds are technically available to all households in Toronto.”
The issue with connectivity isn’t a lack of fibre or wireless or cabling. The city of Toronto has lots of accessible connectivity.
Like many urban centres, the issue that leads to a digital connectivity gap is one of adoption, not access. Building networks won’t fix adoption. To fix adoption we have to have a better understanding of the factors that keep certain communities from getting online.
We know it isn’t just a matter of price. Toronto actually learned that from a report cited in support for its plan. That report told the City that of those without an internet connection, only “half are not connected due to the cost.” The report also told them vulnerable communities needed more access to computers and mobile devices. Unfortunately, the report surveyed such a small sample of people without an internet connection that many other factors were missed, or unreported, such as building trust, getting training in basic skills, understanding the value of being online, and developing more advanced digital literacy, among many more.
For more than a decade, a number of people and companies have been looking at the challenges and trying to develop a number of solutions for the urban digital divide. Such groups should be engaged before Toronto continues down the current path. It was notable to see my skepticism echoed by commentators as feeling “like magical thinking” in Christine Dobby’s story in the Toronto Star. The Star article cites the community network in Olds, Alberta, but doesn’t mention that the lowest price service offered there costs $90 per month. The municipality is also trying to get its $14 million loan repaid. Community networks may be effective in filling in gaps in connectivity, but that is not Toronto’s problem.
Not only am I concerned that ConnectTO isn’t the right answer; it isn’t clear to me that Toronto has even started asking the right questions.