Solving the rural #HomeworkGap

Every household with a school child in Canada should have an affordable connected computer.

That would be a bold, yet attainable goal. But let me crank it up a notch. I think the goal can and should be achieved before the start of the next school year.

We already have programs in place, through the federal Connecting Families program, or Rogers1 Connected for Success, or TELUS’s Internet for Good.

While hundreds of thousands of households are eligible for these programs, too many homes aren’t yet taking advantage of the available savings. In some cases, there is a need for greater awareness of the programs. But, as I have written numerous times, we have learned that getting people online isn’t just a matter of price. In “A national digital literacy strategy”, I noted “Of those who do not currently use the internet, a significant portion attribute their lack of online activity to issues of digital literacy and concern for cybersecurity.”

Having access to low-cost broadband is only what we might call a “necessary, but insufficient” piece of the solution.

While there may be an issue with improving awareness of existing affordable access programs, this is a relatively easy problem to address. The government knows who qualifies under most of the programs and can get the word out through monthly assistance programs and through various social services agencies.

We need to develop more programs and develop partnerships with relevant social services agencies and organizations to assist with digital literacy training, as I discussed a few weeks ago.

Still, a problem we run into is that the carriers participating in these programs do not offer service in many rural and remote areas of the country, representing a significant number of households.

How do we cover the gap?

Perhaps governments at all levels may need to explore direct subsidies to assist with alternative access technologies. In some cases, there are smaller rural service providers; in other areas, broadband service may be available from a mobile or fixed wireless provider. In the most remote areas, satellite may be the only viable solution. In each of these cases, the lowest priced option would still be too expensive for some households. Perhaps it is time for the Federal Government to enhance its Connecting Families program, to expand the list of carriers and to offer a direct subsidy to qualifying households in areas that don’t have a participating service providers.

An effective broadband subsidy program for low-income households would have several key components, enabling eligible households to have choice of service provider and service levels. The approach of a direct government subsidy paid to the service provider could lead to the emergence of companies and agencies with a targeted focus on serving this segment of the market. Work would need to be done, and done quickly to be ready for school in September:

  • Eligibility criteria: The program could use the same criteria as Connecting Families to receive the subsidy (families receiving the maximum Canada Child Benefit and low-income seniors receiving the maximum Guaranteed Income Supplement).
  • Subsidy amount: The subsidy should be sufficient to make broadband service affordable for low-income households, taking into account the cost of internet service and any necessary equipment. The subsidy could be paid directly to the participating service provider, and cover up to a designated portion of the monthly price, up to a subsidy of some fixed level per month (for example, up to $50 per month subsidy).
  • Provider options: By offering a direct subsidy, eligible households can choose the service that best meets their needs and preferences.
  • Ongoing support: The program needs to include ongoing support to low-income households, such as troubleshooting assistance and education on how to use the internet and access government services.
  • Data Privacy and security: The program must ensure that personal data and information of low-income households is protected and not shared without consent.
  • Measurable outcomes: The program should have clear objectives and metrics in place to measure the impact and effectiveness of the subsidy, in order to make any necessary adjustments and improvements.

There are all sorts of issues that would need to be sorted through: getting devices, setting up appropriate financial controls, monitoring eligible regions, and so much more. I am not so naive as to think this would all get resolved this year, but it could. Couldn’t it? Shouldn’t it?

In one of my posts last week, I quoted an editorial in the Globe and Mail, “If there is no definition of success, there cannot be failure. And if there is no failure, there is no risk of accountability.”

I’d like to see the next budget take a risk and set a bold, but attainable objective: Every household with a school child in Canada should have an affordable connected computer.

1 As part of its plan to acquire Shaw, Rogers has said it “will also expand its Connected for Success program nationally to reach every Canadian where the combined company offers Internet services.” In its appearance at the Parliamentary INDU Committee last week, Rogers hinted that it plans to launch a wireless complement to Connected for Success. TELUS currently offers mobile plans for youth and seniors under its Mobility for Good program.

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