ConnectTO’s failed sense of urgency

It was completely predictable that Toronto would fail to deliver a timely solution to the appeals for broadband for its most vulnerable citizens. Indeed, I predicted it a year ago, right after Toronto City Council greenlighted a silly proposal for the city to build its own fibre-based ISP in what is already one of the most connected cities in Canada.

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.

It took the City until the end of September to issue an RFP; responses were due in mid-November. At the time it approved the plan, item 10 said: “City Council request the Chief Technology Officer to report back to the Executive Committee by end of 2021 to provide an update on digital equity, digital access and municipal broadband.” According to a news release from January 2021, the first target areas for ConnectTO were “expected to be live starting in late 2021.” The news release also called for “a report back to Council at the end of 2021” prior to “Phase 2 of the project plans to see the network launched city-wide starting in early 2022.”

I have been unable to find such a report. Here we are a year later, two years into the pandemic, and there is nothing to show for the people who needed immediate help.

City Council saw people hungry for internet connectivity. Rather than provide them with vouchers for an immediate solution, the City decided to look into building a city-owned and operated network, piloted in one neighbourhood. The city wants to build a new network, in an area that already has lots of available broadband connectivity.

Nearly four and a half years ago, in November 2017, Toronto’s CIO and GM of Economic Development and Culture wrote, “In Toronto nearly 100% of households have ‘access’ but this refers only to the necessary infrastructure being in place. In practice, access depends on affordability.”

Toronto didn’t then, and doesn’t now, have a problem with access to internet facilities. Toronto’s problem was (and still is) with adoption of service.

Toronto City Council didn’t ask the right questions of its CTO and those providing deputations. As such, ConnectTO wasn’t the right answer.

Toronto lost sight of the most important requirement for the solution.

“The programs need to be put in place now, not tomorrow. Now.”

2 thoughts on “ConnectTO’s failed sense of urgency”

  1. I applaud City politicians for wanting to do something, absent federal or provincial initiative on connecting the urban, suburban and rural poor. But you are right, the problem in Toronto is not wireline infrastructure: its the affordability of home computers and data allowances. And the priority should be kids of low income families. There is no way the municipalities have this kind of money. It has to be a provincial program with federal co-funding. Maybe we can all send our licence sticker refunds there….

  2. Low priced computers and broadband (as low as $10/month) have been available from Rogers to all low income households in Toronto for almost a decade and the program was recently enhanced. The “Connected for Success” program is available everywhere under the Rogers cable footprint and TELUS has a similar program, “Internet for Good”, in its wireline operating areas. The Federal Government helped spread the program nationally, paid for completely by the facilities-based telecom companies, under the “Connecting Families” banner.

    But we have learned that even when the service is free, a large number of people won’t go online. We need to learn more and address those factors that are keeping so many people from participating (fear of computers, distrust of government, etc.)

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