Yvonne has always had to stretch her budget to make sure she and her family have access to the internet as one of their basic household services.
She has multiple sclerosis and lives on a fixed income, so she has to make sure that everything is accounted for. If Yvonne ever finds herself in a situation where she has unexpected expenses, it’s harder to make ends meet because most of her budget is spent on essentials.
When COVID-19 hit, Yvonne had to budget for buying masks, hand sanitizer, gloves, extra cleaning supplies, and stocking up on groceries. Luckily, she was able to get access to affordable internet through National Capital FreeNet, so these new costs didn’t mean sacrificing other expenses.
During COVID-19, having access to the internet and proper technology has been essential for people to connect to education, employment, healthcare, social engagement, and other critical services. United Way East Ontario invested in and supported the launch of Digital Equity Ottawa to understand the barriers that were preventing people from fully participating in their community during the pandemic, and to put in place solutions to address those barriers.
Yvonne noticed that National Capital FreeNet, a partner in Digital Equity Ottawa, began offering their services through Ottawa Community Housing to help low-income tenants access affordable internet services.
“That’s how I ended up with affordable internet,” Yvonne says.
A region-wide access issue
Digital equity means people have affordable access to high quality internet and connected devices, the skills to use them safely, and comfort with their chosen level of digital privacy.
Essential social institutions, including government, education, and healthcare, defaulted to being online during COVID-19, so families who didn’t have adequate internet connectivity became even more marginalized and disconnected.
The lack of affordable internet access is a widespread issue in Ontario, and even more so in rural and Indigenous communities.
Individuals living in urban areas like Ottawa have 99 per cent access to levels of internet recommended by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Yet, in other areas, such as small population centres, this number drops to 92 per cent. It drops even further to 30 per cent when looking at rural areas, and to just 16 per cent when examining internet access on Indigenous reserves.
Rural Canadian internet speeds are, on average, ten times slower than urban speeds, and COVID has widened that divide. In April 2020, rural speeds were 12 times slower – meaning people living in rural communities are disadvantaged when it comes to accessing many basic services online.
Working together to improve digital access
Digital Equity Ottawa is a collaboration powered by United Way and led by the Social Planning Council of Ottawa. National Capital FreeNet, school boards, libraries, the City of Ottawa, Ottawa Community Housing, community health centres, Ottawa and Gatineau ACORN, and others, all work together through Digital Equity Ottawa to combat the digital divide in Ottawa and Eastern Ontario.
To better understand how severe, widespread, and diverse the digital divide is, Digital Equity Ottawa interviewed more than 200 families across East Ontario about the challenges they were facing with Internet speed and affordability, access to devices, and their level of digital literacy.
Together, we learned about different approaches to solving ongoing issues, identified which were most effective, and provided solutions that make a real difference for vulnerable families in our communities.
Since Digital Equity Ottawa was formed, we have supported families in need by distributing electronic devices, provided community housing tenants with access to subsidized internet packages, offered digital literacy support training for the families that need it and, in some cases, provided financial support to cover monthly Internet costs.
For Yvonne, lower and consistent internet costs mean she has “less stress for car repairs, and better, fresher food in the fridge.”
A more connected future
Unexpected expenses have been part of the COVID-19 pandemic. But people living on low and fixed incomes, like Yvonne, shouldn’t have to choose between putting food in the fridge and increasing the internet cap so a child can attend virtual school.
One of United Way’s priorities since the pandemic hit has been to ensure our economic recovery from COVID-19 is more equitable, so everyone in our communities can thrive. Ensuring everyone has equal access to affordable, reliable and fast internet is one of the ways we can break down barriers to inclusion in our communities.