Understanding Canada’s digital divide

For almost 7 years, I have suggested that we need more research to improve our understanding of Canada’s digital divide. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote “We need more research to understand and solve the non-price factors inhibiting people from connecting to broadband services that are at their door.”

A recent report, “Views of the Divide: An Investigation into Canada’s Wireless Divide”, provides a good starting point to help policy makers become more attuned to the kinds of barriers faced by individuals who are not currently accessing “constant connectivity”.

The study [pdf, 1.3 MB], undertaken by Vivic Research (commissioned by TELUS), “combines quantitative data in Statistics Canada’s 2020 Canadian Internet Use Survey (CIUS) with qualitative interviews with organizations working with individuals experiencing the wireless divide in Canada”.

In addition to making a number of interesting recommendations for action, the report calls for some improvements in the data being gathered by Statistics Canada in CIUS.

  • Increasing access to wireless programs. Interviewees highlighted the usefulness of industry programs that make wireless connectivity more accessible (such as TELUS’ Mobility for Good program, which is the only mobile-specific subsidy program we found in our search). However, they also stressed that these programs may be inaccessible to some who need them because they are often tied to receipt or participation in government programs, like the Guaranteed Income Supplement for older adults. These government programs may have high administrative barriers for some potential recipients, which has knock-on effects for accessing wireless programs. Expanding access to these wireless connectivity programs my modifying their eligibility criteria may increase their effectiveness.
  • More prepaid and pay-as-you go options. For unhoused individuals and those living in unstable housing, wireless serve may in inaccessible because they do not have a stable address. Additionally, people with poor or no credit may also face barriers to accessing wireless service offered though a subscription. Increasing options available for prepaid and pay-as-you go plans in the market would enhance access to wireless connectivity for underhoused, low-income and new Canadians in particular.
  • “Pull” digital skills development. Data from the CIUS show that there is scope for innovation in how we support people in developing digital skills. People in the divide are less likely to pursue learning opportunities than people outside the divide, and when they do they tend to rely on informal instruction from friends and family. Learning supports could be retooled to emphasize “pulling” rather than “pushing” skills development by tying learning opportunities to the current needs of recipients. This approach could look like providing technology or training to people that require connectivity to access support programs, helping them fulfil a concrete need rather than build digital skills in the abstract.
  • Evaluation. Full evaluations of both public and private programs addressing the wireless divide, such as TELUS’ Mobility for Good program and the Connecting Families Initiative from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, should be undertaken to establish their effectiveness and identify specific areas of improvement.
  • Measurement of the wireless divide. A method for measuring the wireless divide over time should be developed to enable policy makers and industry partners to set goals for closing the divide and track progress.
  • Surveys. Unhoused individuals and people with unstable housing are likely not captured in the Canadian Internet Use Survey. However, information on wireless connectivity of these individuals could be gathered as part of point-in-time homelessness counts. Furthermore, questions could be added to the Canadian Internet Use Survey that would enable researchers to gain more insight into the potential drivers of the wireless divide and to define the wireless divide more precisely.

It is gratifying to see progress in the development of research to improve our understanding of factors inhibiting digital adoption.

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