Digital inclusion

Digital inclusion needs more than just money.

Like many countries around the world, various government departments and agencies in Canada allocate funding to support building affordable broadband access facilities. We have a national target: for every Canadian to have the ability to access a broadband service with speeds of at least 50 Mbps down, 10 Mbps up and unlimited data. The goal is for such universal access to be available by the year 2030. Simple enough.

It is a formidable engineering challenge to get broadband connections to every household in Canada. But, it is a solvable challenge.

On the other hand, it will take multi-disciplinary efforts to try to get every Canadian to actually make use of the broadband services at their doorstep. And it isn’t clear to me that we will.

In 2016, Canada set an intermediate target for 90% of Canadians to have access to 50/10 unlimited service. The CRTC shows this milestone was achieved with 91.4% having access at the end of 2021.

Despite the relative simplicity of the objective, it is often misunderstood. Some people think the objective is for everyone to subscribe to a service with at least 50/10 speeds. As a result, we have seen people look at community speed tests and conclude that observed average speeds below 50/10 demonstrate shortcomings in infrastructure. That simply isn’t true. Some people may choose to subscribe to a lower tier of service. As well, many speed tests are unable to measure the speed of the service being delivered to the home.

According to the latest Canadian Internet Use Survey, 94% have an internet connection at home, and of those, roughly 7 out of 8 subscribe to a service with speeds exceeding 50 Mbps down, 10 Mbps up.

Among Canadians under the age of 45, 99.2% report using the internet. That declines to 82.6% among Canadians over the age of 65. Still, that is up from 76.3% just two years earlier.

While most government programs are designed to stimulate supply, I’d like to focus on digital inclusion. How do we stimulate demand for broadband? How do we encourage people to subscribe to broadband, and to increase their use of digital services?

A recent report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) calls for “dramatic reforms to old [broadband] programs” in the United States. “Federal broadband subsidy programs are a mess of redundancies and have spent too much money to have failed to close the geographic digital divide.”

Earlier this week, the FCC announced [pdf, 168 KB] that its Affordable Connectivity Program has connected more than 20 million households. Still, according to ITIF, “Subsidies alone will never close the whole digital divide. Individuals will have nonfinancial reasons for not connecting, which will require targeted digital inclusion efforts, not just spending more money.”

As we have discussed before, studies show that low prices aren’t enough to get people to sign up.

Canada continues to make significant progress ensuring all Canadian households have access to a broadband connection. However, building broadband access is only part of solution for digital inclusion.

We need more multi-disciplinary research to understand and solve the non-price factors inhibiting people from connecting to broadband services that are at their door.

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