Connecting the unconnected

Over the weekend, I read about a couple initiatives that could help expand digital connectivity for low income Canadians.

A New York Times article, “Fighting Homelessness, One Smartphone at a Time“, talks about a program that is distributing 1000 Nexus 5 smartphones donated by Google to homeless people in San Jose. “People don’t put out ‘for rent’ signs anymore, so the Internet is the best way. You can’t even go get a paper application for a lot of things. You can’t get a job unless you get online. Before I got a free phone, it was like you’re almost nonexistent.”

And an unrelated article from last summer on the Wikimedia Blog surfaced in my Twitter feed “Wikipedia Zero and Net Neutrality: Protecting the Internet as a Public Space.” That article talks bout an initiative by South African cell phone providers to provide access to Wikipedia free of charge, under the umbrella of a Wikimedia Foundation program known as Wikipedia Zero.

Wikipedia Zero launched in 2012 to bring free access to Wikipedia on mobile phones. Today, Wikipedia Zero is available to an estimated 350 million people in 29 countries; it serves more than 65 million pageviews for free, every month.

According to Wikimedia’s description, implementing Wikipedia Zero is simple:

The operator “zero-rates” access to Wikimedia sites in their billing system, so their subscribers will not incur data charges while accessing Wikipedia and the sister projects on the mobile web or apps. Wikimedia recognizes the user is on that operator’s network and serves a banner on the top of the page indicating free data courtesy of their mobile operator, which reinforces a positive brand experience for the operator. When the user leaves the Wikimedia sites, they see a warning message and are asked to confirm, so there is no confusion or risk of surprise charges.

These are initiatives that could be adopted by any or all of Canada’s wireless companies, although there is a regulatory risk that could put a chill on zero-rated applications.

The CRTC’s Mobile TV decision included a section on prospective undue preference that could discourage carriers from advantaging “Wikipedia” over any other potential information service. When the CRTC “acknowledge[d] that no complaints or interventions were filed by competing service providers”, one might wonder if an unintended consequence could be that the commission created a hurdle for services that target disadvantaged communities.

Will Digital Canada 150 begin to examine solutions to address the challenge of low income adoption of information technologies? As Canada moves toward an election this year, which political parties’ platforms will discuss digital inclusiveness?

In the absence of government leadership, perhaps Canada’s communications industry can make a difference on its own, one smartphone or one website at a time.

Update: [April 20, 12:30 pm]
Greg O’Brien pointed out a recent opinion piece in the Detroit Free Press written by FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. In it, she writes:

Students who lack broadband access at home are unable to complete basic schoolwork. They have trouble keeping up in the classroom. More than that, they are holding our educational efforts back.

The homework gap is the cruelest part of the digital divide. But we can take steps now to tackle it — steps that will help students get their schoolwork done, help expand access to the Internet, and help grow our digital economy.

As I wrote earlier this year, it is politically attractive to continue (and expand) the subsidy systems we have in Canada, which have been based on geography. Hundreds of millions of dollars flow to subsidize rural and remote regions without regard to financial needs.

On the other hand, low income Canadians, who tend to be concentrated in urban areas across the country, have no programs to help them pay for service. Prices that seem affordable to most Canadians, may be out of reach for those who are living from week-to-week, let alone month-to-month. All of us may complain about the price of service – who wouldn’t like lower bills for everything – but more than 80% of us have computers at home connected to the internet. As I have written many times, there are too many low income households that don’t have a computer, let alone a broadband connection.

Canada needs to make changes to its approach if we want to bridge the gap between those who can and those who cannot afford to participate in a digital economy.

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