‘Broadband isn’t a luxury': groups call for internet benefit for low-income households

“The idea of getting internet at home would have been attractive except for the cost,” said Ray Noyes, a 64-year-old man who thinks it’s time the federal government creates a broadband internet benefit.

The Ottawa, Ont.-based man said in an interview that even though he is part of the Ontario Disability Support Program, it doesn’t cover the costs required to pay for internet services.

“With my $1,169, I’ve got to pay over half of that in rent,” he said.

Noyes is also a member of ACORN Canada (an independent national organization of low and moderate-income families), which, in partnership with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), and the National Pensioners Federation, are campaigning for a $50 a month Canadian Broadband Benefit.

The proposed benefit is similar to what the Federal Communications Commission in the U.S. has been tasked with creating.

Ray Noyes, an ACORN member, can't afford to pay for internet services and is calling the federal government to help.
Ray Noyes, an ACORN member, can't afford to pay for internet services and is calling the federal government to help. Image credit: ACORN

The three groups want the benefit to be provided monthly for low-income Canadians, seniors on fixed incomes, and for those Canadians qualifying for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

John Lawford, executive director and general counsel of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, said in an interview that the program should run for at least six months.

He added that while the government offered CERB, those funds aren’t enough to pay for a service that was already expensive before the pandemic.

“There was already an [internet] affordability crisis before COVID, which was not being addressed by the CRTC or the government,” he said. “The federal government felt a bit bad and did the Connecting Families program, which is a very limited program.”

In 2017, the government announced the $13.2 million Connecting Families initiative that provides cheaper internet services for qualified families that fall under the low-income bracket.

Lawford said it was unacceptable for people to be stuck at home and not be able to connect with the outside world.

“Perhaps the government believes that part of the CERB would go towards paying for internet, but the members, the low-income members we’re talking to, it’s not adequate,” he said. “If you have a pre-existing affordability problem, it’s not going to fix it.”

Trish McAuliffe, president of the National Pensioner’s Federation, echoed Lawford and added that many older seniors receive low pension payments because they haven’t worked enough.

“There is a lot of economic pressure,” she said. “They’re struggling to get food on the table, and take their meds, and we know the internet is very expensive. They just can’t pay for all of this. They’re suffering in silence.”

Dwayne Winseck, a media industry researcher at Carleton University in Ottawa, said that pushing for a benefit like this underscores the severe necessity of a service that is no longer considered a luxury.

“It’s kind of a fundamental necessity in contemporary life, not at all a luxury,” he said in an interview. “I don’t think this is a pie in the sky fantasy. This is a very realistic proposal that addresses a very real need and the real status of internet access.”

Winseck said that while CERB may help some Canadians pay for internet services, many in the low-income bracket have other priorities.

“For lower-income households, essential services like telecommunications or internet access constitute a larger portion of their household spending than it does for other households,” he said. “And for that reason, it’s targeting these particular households.”

Christopher Ali, a telecom expert and associate professor at the University of Virginia, said in an interview the Canadian government shouldn’t make Canadians pick one or the other when it comes to what they decide to pay for using their stimulus checks.

“You don’t need to have it one way or the other. I think you could give funds to Canadians and have them spend it as they see fit. But you can also mark part of that for broadband services because the two do go hand in hand,” he said.

“I also feel we haven’t convinced everybody that broadband isn’t a luxury and that people need to get on board quite frankly.”