Community-level internet projects can help close the digital divide – here’s what’s needed

Local innovation is key to getting more Canadians connected to the internet, but there’s not nearly enough funding to power it.

Why It Matters

COVID-19 has exposed the depth of Canada’s digital divide, but major telecom companies lack the incentives to reach remote communities and vulnerable populations. Without more locally-driven solutions, digital equity advocates say millions of Canadians will continue to lack the “basic right” to a reliable internet connection.

This story would not be possible without our partnership with CIRA (Canadian Internet Registration Authority).

In Halifax, Nova Scotia, Chebucto Community Net provides internet to more than 400 low-income people, most of whom could not afford online access. The non-profit managed to reach them by putting Wi-Fi into a few local public housing projects.

Participating residents pay just $125 each year in return for a basic connection to the online world, along with technical support from hard-working volunteers who run it. And the package is pretty bare-bones – they even still offer dial-up.

“These people really don’t have any other option,” says Shahab Rowshan, the chair of Chebucto, whose clientele includes people who are unemployed, disabled or elderly, and can’t afford commercial internet or access public networks.

“It’s a human rights issue,” Rowshan says, because without the internet “you can’t do your taxes, you can’t apply for old age security, you can’t apply for social assistance.” With the COVID-19 lockdown, more and more services – such as library computer access or in-person Service Canada appointments – have stopped or gone online.

Despite the efforts of local organizations like his, millions of Canadians are still missing out because of affordability or access issues – especially in more remote regions. In 2017, less than a quarter of households in Indigenous communities had access to what Canada’s telecom regulator defines as ‘basic’ internet speeds. COVID-19 has made this divide more visible than ever before. 

In response, the federal government has announced an additional $2 billion in broadband investments to close the gap. But organizations focusing on digital equity argue that if this money is to have an impact, community-level solutions are needed. 

Organizations focusing on digital equity argue that if this money is to have an impact, community-level solutions are needed. 

They say a gap is being left by large telecommunications firms that simply don’t have the financial incentives to serve populations like remote First Nations and low-income Canadians. 

“We should create as many models as possible for people to access the internet that is not necessarily dependent on large corporations,” says Nasma Ahmed, director of the Digital Justice Lab. The trouble is, she says, in a market captured by telecom giants, creating internet services at the local level faces too many barriers.

So what are the biggest barriers facing community-level digital solutions? What can the government, and other partners like charitable foundations, do to support and encourage them?

 

Canada’s digital infrastructure makes life hard for community-level solutions 

The most important organization in Canada’s digital development is the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which dictates the rules of the game which stakeholders play.

The CRTC declared broadband a “basic service” back in 2016 and has been trying to increase access to rural and remote communities. However, the body is often criticized for being set up in favour of large incumbent companies, making life harder for community-level internet projects.

“There is a massive power imbalance of who gets heard when,” says Ahmed. “Resources [are] a huge piece: who has the time and capacity to do that intense lobbying work?”

According to a recent report by the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), funding for public participation to engage in policy advocacy around how the internet is deployed in Canada is just about non-existent,” which means the views of local communities can be overlooked in government decision-making.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began until the end of July, Canada’s three largest telecommunications companies – Bell, Rogers and TELUS – met with government officials or the CRTC 128 times, or approximately once a day, according to Canada’s lobbyist registry. By comparison, prominent community advocacy organizations like Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) and OpenMedia had no meetings registered over that time frame.

Although the CRTC has tried to be more inclusive in recent years, such as by holding public hearings, its complex policies and processes still make it hard for smaller organizations to get their voices heard.

“If you can invest in two lawyers to sit down and read this stuff and digest it,” says Chris Maxwell, Chebucto’s technical director, “then it is a fantastic [regulatory] environment.” Instead, Maxwell has to fit his work around a full-time job at Dalhousie University. 

Another imbalance is the distribution of wireless “spectrum”. Wireless communications are transmitted over a variety of radio frequencies, or a spectrum, which are vital to high-speed internet. But this spectrum is a finite resource, which is auctioned off by the government when it comes available. University of Alberta analysis has shown that this market-based method of distributing spectrum has favoured large, incumbent players and has limited distribution to urban areas.

 

Solutions exist to help communities fill the gap 

The good news is that there are a number of policy levers available to the government and other partners to promote and support community solutions.

“There are worldwide examples of successful systems and government support that fosters much more innovative telecommunications projects in areas where large companies are not providing service,” says Madeleine Redfern, mayor of Iqaluit in Nunavut from 2015 to 2019 and now president of Nuvujaq, a business promoting connectivity in remote communities. 

One of the ways that Ottawa could help is by improving how it allocates space on the wireless spectrum, which can be expensive and difficult to access. The University of Alberta study concluded the government should “set aggressive deployment targets for rural and remote areas.” Canada’s next auction is set for June next year.

In the United States, for example, the Federal Communications Commission has introduced what’s called the Rural Tribal Window. A band of spectrum has been set aside for public good, and Indigeous communities – which have amongst the worst access to broadband in the country – have been given first priority.

Nunavummiut experience the worst of the digital divide every day, says Redfern. With some of the most expensive prices and least reliable internet in Canada, a lack of internet access can cripple the society and its economy.

Redfern remembers one day in particular, when she was mayor. She heard about a house fire just a few blocks away and had to get in touch with the fire station. To Redfern’s horror, due to weather interference with the satellite internet, her phone lines and internet were down. Instead of calling them, she had to drive down to the fire station to report it.

“People that live in our reality want and need to see improvements in our rural and remote areas,” Redfern says. “The federal government should be working with the provinces and the territories to develop national and regional and local telecommunications strategies.”

Those strategies will differ between communities because “we have communities that are so vastly different,” says Garth Frizzle, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which has been campaigning on the digital divide for several years. Different communities may have the internet provided by a local business, for example, or a non-profit, like in the Halifax Chebucto example.

This means helping local communities create solutions that work in their context — in other words, providing the funding to power them. In Kaslo, British Columbia, for example, the Kaslo infoNet Society is working to bring more high-speed internet capacity to the West Kootenay region by running a 36km fibre-optic cable under the Kootenay Lake.

To support local experimentation, Frizzle says it’s essential that processes to obtain funding are quick and simple. “Some of the municipalities we’re working with are very small and don’t want a complex and time-consuming process,” he says.

 

“The World’s Fastest Rural Broadband” 

If there’s a gold standard for this kind of experimentation, it lies in rural northwest of the United Kingdom, where local volunteers and landowners created the Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN) in response to a severe lack of internet access.

Launching in 2011 as a community benefit society – which puts profits back into the community – it installed fibre-optic cables deep under farmland, and now connects nearly 7,000 properties with what it brands “The World’s Fastest Rural Broadband”. There was a gap in the national infrastructure, and the local community stepped up to fill it.

B4RN stands as an inspiration to the team at Chebucto, says Chris Maxwell. For large technology companies, he says, creating online communities is often a means to an end – usually to put eyes in front of advertising. For Chebucto, however, creating a genuine, supportive community of people is what the organization set out to do when it was founded in 1994. 

“Anybody else who wanted to take up this mantle: stick up the few radio towers in a rural area and get that one link you need to get to the outside world, but share it out with all your neighbours,” Maxwell says. “That’s totally feasible.”