Addressing the digital divide must be integral to the Covid-19 response efforts of all orders of government.
The Our Place coalition of community partners is calling on the City of Vancouver, and the Federal and Provincial Governments to take immediate steps to provide free, open internet access to vulnerable residents in Vancouver’s inner city. This means targeting residents and households, such as those in social and affordable housing, that have limited access to a reliable internet connection.
We further urge Council, Provincial and Federal partners and their staff to ensure that those most in need have the technology required to access supports and resources throughout the Covid-19 crisis that are primarily, if not solely available online.
Our Place Calls to Action:
1. Immediately install Wi-Fi at key inner city affordable and social housing complexes at least for the duration of the Covid-19 Crisis, if not permanently. For example, MacLean Park, Stamps Place, UGM, Vancouver Native Housing, and Grandview Terrace.
2. In areas where there is a high density of low-income households, with individuals unable to afford Wi-Fi access consider use of subsidies and compile other options that can accommodate families, students and other low-income residents to access services at least for the duration of the Covid-19 Crisis, if not permanently eg. short-term: Telus $10/month broadband for low-income families; long-term: expand existing public programs like ‘Connecting Families’.
3. Work with VSB, housing providers, inner city community centres and other service agencies to develop an information sharing system to enable identification of major gaps in service and an initial database of households requiring individualized internet/tech support.
4. Implement a model similar to the Emergency Food Distribution Hubs to further outreach to individuals and families to determine their particular needs, and develop a strategy to acquire, distribute and install computers/tablets etc and broadband internet where needed. This could include the same initial partners and an ongoing referral system as well as tech support and procurement strategy (eg. refurbished devices or for Indigenous learners, access to Jordan’s Principle funding).
5. Ensure the City of Vancouver website is an easy to navigate, one-stop shop for users of all levels of experience and literacy to access timely, relevant information and resources related to the Covid-19 Crisis in multiple languages.
The Covid-19 pandemic and physical distancing measures have meant a rapid shift to a digital reality. The closure of physical sites and face to face operations and the move to extensive use of online platforms for delivery of needed and essential services make this critical for the health and well-being of some of the most vulnerable in our neighborhoods.
Schools are conducting online learning, economic relief from government is happening through online systems, doctor’s appointments are being conducted through e-health services and mutual aid efforts are taking place on social media. Reliable sources of the ever-evolving Covid-19 health and safety guidelines are online. Those who aren't connected risk becoming further isolated from their families and communities of support as the pandemic continues.
Too many residents in Vancouver’s inner city do not have internet access, nor computer equipment. It is currently estimated that one in ten families in the DTES are without an internet connection. While many have cell phones, affordable plans limit minutes available, making waiting on hold to speak to anyone an impossible barrier. Now that local community centres and libraries are closed, almost no public access points still exist in this area. While providers like Shaw have opened up access to their Wi-Fi networks, these connections are not secure and many of these signals will soon disappear as shuttered local businesses cancel their subscriptions. Furthermore, people are leaving their homes and hanging out outside of these public Wi-Fi hot spots. Ensuring citizens are safe and connected throughout Covid-19, means getting these signals to people where they are.
Government responses to Covid-19 assume a level of infrastructure and capacity to access and then use technology that simply does not exist for many low-income people and neighbourhoods. In 2017, the CRTC found that only 69% of Canadians earning less than $33,000 annually had access to the internet at home, with only 63% reporting access to a home computer. Under these circumstances, even the municipal decision by Council and staff to shift public participation in meetings and hearings to input by phone or online serves to basically disenfranchise a significant number of city residents who do not have access to the needed technologies.
In 2017/18, the City prioritized installing free Wi-Fi hubs in key areas as part of an overall strategy to make Vancouver a fully connected city. The inner city was never connected up as a community, with access remaining available primarily through community centres and libraries. At that time, and for years before and since, local organizations advocated for full access to support the needs of local children, youth, families, and seniors. As the limited options once available no longer exist, this has become even more pressing.
Digital inequities and the move to online services means vulnerable populations, including isolated seniors and elders, inner city learners, low-income, Indigenous and newcomer individuals and families, and those with pre-existing health conditions will face additional barriers to accessing basic needs. Existing inequalities will deepen, and more people will fall through the cracks.
The city has indicated they are now working with providers including Shaw and Telus to identify gaps, as well as BC Housing. While these conversations are a step in the right direction, decisions around access and affordability cannot be left in the hands of for-profit internet service providers. The internet has already been declared an essential service by the CRTC, and if the city is to be successful in addressing the digital needs of its most vulnerable citizens in these unprecedented times, these citizens and the groups that represent them need to be at the table with Provincial and Federal partners.