Unplugging can be a liberating feeling. With ubiquitous access to the internet through mobile devices, where your work and social connections follow you everywhere, it sometimes feels as though being connected is a burden.
But what if you couldn't connect at all. Ever.
For thousands of Vancouverites, where I live and work, unplugging isn't a luxury, it's a daily reality. Despite the gigabyte fiber cables beneath their feet, the ultra-fast coffee shop Wi-Fi, and the plethora of mobile devices around them, many people are cut off from the jobs, opportunities and connections enabled by the internet.
In cities like Vancouver, and dozens of others across Canada, it's not vast geographic distances that keep people offline, it's the inability to connect to the wires and networks that are already there.
CIRA's recent report, The gap between us: Perspectives on building a better online Canada, describes challenges related to Canada's internet, including internet access in urban settings, particularly for marginalized groups. This includes low-income individuals, seniors and new Canadians, to name a few. But we can do better.
Where I work, at the Vancouver Community Network (VCN), I meet people every day who lack access to the internet. Sometimes it's because they can't afford a home internet package. Sometimes they don't own a device and therefore can't get online. Sometimes, they are homeless. These people, often living on the margins, are left out of Canada's digital society. I've seen firsthand how the internet can change a person's life, yet many go without, and sadly, this often goes unnoticed.
VCN's charitable mission for the last 25 years is that everybody should have equal and unfettered access to the internet. Unfortunately, solutions are hard to come by when we're faced with rapidly-changing technology, as well as a lack of money to address problems.
In an urban centre like Vancouver, people who have consistent internet access find it hard to imagine that not everyone has what they have. This misconception makes it difficult for organizations like mine to access funding that can help connect everyone. If it were a priority and we had the funding, for example, VCN would provide free Wi-Fi on East Hastings Street in Vancouver, down to Main Street, making it available for the many people along that corridor.
Of course, free Wi-Fi is only part of a solution. Every person on social assistance across Canada should be given a smartphone. Connecting to job postings, health care and other opportunities is a gateway to a better life, yet without a device, this gate remains locked.
As well, every school-aged child should have an iPad or device to do their homework on. Many do, but so many don't. Today's youth, who are growing up in a time where everything is going digital, need these skills, not just for future job opportunities, but to be part of society.
Infrastructure, devices, education. Combine all three and we have magic.
The City of Vancouver, along with other potential funders, have an opportunity to address internet access challenges head on. A lot of good work is done in our city to house people, but when we're looking to make positive change in Vancouver, internet access should also be a priority.
Technology won't solve all the world's problems. But I've seen the power of the internet in changing people's lives. This includes people who come in to use our free computers and want to write a resume. People who are ready to come off drugs and want to connect with others online for support. People who are ready to improve their lives.
The first step is acknowledging that internet access is not available for everyone in Vancouver. The next is for funding to address it. Third, of course, is to get people online and supported in using it safely and efficiently in order to lift themselves out of their circumstances and become full, contributing members of society. The solution exists; we just need to make it happen.
This blog was written by Tracey Axelsson, executive director of the Vancouver Community Network (VCN). VCN is a past recipient of a CIRA Community Investment Program grant and is featured in CIRA's report The gap between us: Perspectives on building a better online Canada.