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In early 2018, the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) embarked on the fifth year of its Community Investment Program, which provides $1 million each year to not-for-profits, charities and academic institutions doing good work for and through the Canadian internet.
With that in mind, and given this milestone year for our program, CIRA reached out to past grant recipients, along with others in the internet and digital literacy sectors, to discuss Canada’s internet. CIRA wanted to capture and share their experiences – good and bad. Participants of this report are mostly grassroots organizations, including not-for-profits providing digital literacy training, academics who research the Canadian online experience, and small internet service providers (ISPs) working in rural and remote communities.
Supporting groups that connect Canadians to health care, education, job opportunities and to each other, is important in and of itself. But far more important are the long-term benefits of these programs: teaching coding skills to a whole new generation of future adult workers, equipping entrepreneurs in rural communities, and enhancing distance education opportunities in northern and remote communities. Ensuring that all Canadians, no matter their age, income, where they live (or how they live) can be full digital citizens is vital. In doing this, not only do Canadians benefit from all the internet offers – everyone can contribute to Canada’s digital future. Currently, we can only imagine what differences these contributions can make.
According to the International Telecommunications Union’s ICT Development Index, Canada lags behind all but one of its G7 peers. This from a country that has historically been at the forefront of internet-related developments. Regaining lost ground is a complex issue. But certainly part of that solution includes better understanding Canada’s current challenges and opportunities, and ensuring all citizens can be full and active participants in the digital economy.
The majority of those interviewed for this report work at not-for-profit organizations and around 60 per cent work for an organization with 25 or fewer people. These organizations are steadfast in their efforts to enhance internet access, put in place first mile internet connectivity, and help Canadians, particularly marginalized groups, grow their digital literacy skills. These are also organizations with limited power and funding. Their challenges are real, and the ideas they present are vast.
This report amplifies their voices and will hopefully spark discussions about challenges and opportunities in the areas of internet infrastructure, access, digital literacy and funding. The report summarizes their experiences and opinions – and as a funder of internet projects, CIRA is listening. Hopefully others will as well.
Internet funders, policy makers and advocates should read this report and reflect on what grassroots organizations, truly the ‘boots on the ground’ are saying. These are specific points of view, to be sure, but ones that deserve an audience.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) declared broadband internet as a basic service, paving the way to universal access of broadband internet. Given its prevalence in the lives of so many Canadians – where they work, play, connect socially and access many government services – CIRA reached out to individuals across Canada who are experts in internet infrastructure, access and digital literacy. Through a mostly qualitative survey, along with follow-up interviews with some participants, the results highlight a number of challenges across the country.
These range from lack of infrastructure in remote and rural areas, to lack of digital access and literacy among marginalized groups, lack of understanding around security and privacy risks, and funding barriers to address these needs. There’s also frustration that a handful of players hold the power – and receive much of the funding – to address these issues.
One of the greatest concerns shared is the increasing gap between ‘haves and have nots’, where some groups — from seniors and new Canadians, to Indigenous communities, northern and remote populations, as well as low-income individuals in urban centres — are falling further and further behind.
Number of employees in surveyed organizations
Work sector of surveyed organizations
What we heard
- Lack of competition and funding affects internet infrastructure expansion. Where infrastructure is in place, imbalances in quality often remain, particularly in rural and remote communities.
- Market forces drive infrastructure investment.
- Remote communities and small ISPs often bear the costs of first-mile connectivity, and affordable open access is often unavailable.
- Home internet access provides a richer online experience than for those who access the internet in a public space.
- For some low-income individuals, low-cost internet options are still too expensive and the quality, speed and size of data packages are insufficient.
- There are inequities in access in both rural and urban communities.
- Seniors, new Canadians, Indigenous peoples and others are being digitally left behind, causing isolation and making it harder for them to access opportunities and services online.
- Learning the fundamentals of using the internet is a gap that exists, but with little attention or funding devoted to it.
- Lack of digital literacy in Canada increases vulnerability to cyber threats such as malware, phishing scams and the influence of “fake news.”
- Funding parameters for internet projects are often complex or too precise, and the application process can be cumbersome.
- There is intense competition for a small pool of funding and trendy digital issues get more attention and funding than others.
- A lack of consistency in funding, along with short timelines for using it, impact project effectiveness.
- Fund basic digital literacy skills.
- Incorporate basic cybersecurity and privacy training into pre-existing learning opportunities, particularly for marginalized populations.
- Grow Canada’s internet exchange points (IXPs) and encourage more peering.
- Make first-mile connectivity a priority and encourage community ownership and local innovation.
- Develop a national affordability program that considers both price and quality and can be offered by all internet service providers equally.
- Develop critical thinking/problem solving skills among youth.
- Empower teachers.
- Review funding models, particularly with a lens for supporting small, grassroots organizations.
- Consider non-financial support for grassroots organizations.
- Find ways to link up best practices across the country.
One of Canada’s greatest challenges with connectivity is its sheer size — and the need to connect remote, rural and northern communities. But it’s not just isolated communities that are affected; urban areas face internet infrastructure challenges, particularly within low income populations.
Most organizations that participated in the CIRA survey feel their community, region or province is in dire need of better internet infrastructure. Lack of funding and lack of competition were notable concerns and most agreed that Canada’s internet infrastructure requires a lot of work.
Nearly 70 per cent of respondents agreed that Canada relies too heavily on U.S. internet infrastructure. This is in line with research CIRA conducted in March 2018 where nearly 70 per cent of Canadians expressed concern about the security and privacy of their personal information and data on the internet if stored in or routed through the U.S.
Some data in Canada that is sent from one Canadian and meant for another Canadian, including the Canadian government, travels through U.S. infrastructure. Peering at Canadian internet exchange points is a great way to keep data in Canada thereby protecting Canadians’ data privacy.
Infrastructure itself is not the only issue. Lack of content ownership is also something that impacts Canada’s internet.
Canada does not have its own internet. We have pipelines for data to be able to connect people but we don’t have a Google to search. We don’t have mail systems for mail. We don’t have YouTube for videos. We don’t have any infrastructure in Canada in terms of what is understood by the general public to be the ‘internet’. It would be great if there was more development put into our own internet in Canada so that we don’t have to rely on the U.S., the U.K. or all these other countries in the world that have their own internet technologies, says Jeff Klause, CEO of Voyageur Internet in Manitoba.
Klause continues with a recognition that physical infrastructure efforts in Canada are on the right path. In terms of internet infrastructure, we’re actually doing pretty well as a country. There’s a lot misunderstandings about what it takes to build out infrastructure. We’re a very large country; we’re very spread out. In terms of the people that are connected and the speeds they are getting – we always want more. That will come in time. We have a lot of road yet to go. Many dozens of years before we’re at the point we want to be in Canada, but we will get there.
The size of our country is a challenge and so is its climate, since the most affordable window for building infrastructure is just a few months each year — particularly in the Far North.