The gap between us: Perspectives on building a better online Canada

Introduction

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.

Executive summary

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.

What we heard

Infrastructure

  • 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.

Access

  • 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.

Digital literacy

  • 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

  • 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.

Recommended solutions

  1. Fund basic digital literacy skills.

  2. Incorporate basic cybersecurity and privacy training into pre-existing learning opportunities, particularly for marginalized populations.

  3. Grow Canada’s internet exchange points (IXPs) and encourage more peering.

  4. Make first-mile connectivity a priority and encourage community ownership and local innovation.

  5. Develop a national affordability program that considers both price and quality and can be offered by all internet service providers equally.

  6. Develop critical thinking/problem solving skills among youth.

  7. Empower teachers.

  8. Review funding models, particularly with a lens for supporting small, grassroots organizations.

  9. Consider non-financial support for grassroots organizations.

  10. Find ways to link up best practices across the country.

Detailed findings

Infrastructure

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.

We are seeing some progress, but it’s a slow process. Another open access Mackenzie Valley fibre link [a project undertaken by the Government of the Northwest Territories] will be helpful for some of the northern communities. It takes more funding and more time for that issue to be addressed fully, said Rob McMahon, assistant professor of communications and technology with the University of Alberta.

Lack of competition is also an issue in remote or northern communities. I would say there may be minor competition if you want to go with satellite, but in some of these communities you won’t have much choice, said McMahon, who is also affiliated with the First Mile Connectivity Consortium, an advocacy group for connecting remote and rural First Nations, which he co-founded.

It’s not just an issue of connectivity; it’s an issue of quality. Through the Connecting Canadians program — a government initiative to provide high-speed internet services to as many Canadian households as possible — almost every household in the lower half of Manitoba now has internet access. But the quality is a different discussion, said Evan Schroeder, chief operating officer of Swift High Speed, a local internet service provider located east of Winnipeg that provides services to rural, remote communities in Manitoba.

A couple of companies say they cover Canada but quality is another story. It’s simply not as advertised — promising a 10 megabit [per second] connection and delivering two megabits per second, said Schroeder. He also said there’s a major hindrance in our ability to transfer data wirelessly to clients in the country because the cost is outrageous, with the cost of running fibre at $15,000 to $20,000 per mile. His biggest concern is privatized infrastructure that goes to Canada’s large ISPs and we’re still not allowed to use it.

Market forces and internet investment

Repeatedly brought up by respondents was Canada’s reliance on three major telecom providers that use “market forces” as their investment incentive. Respondents feel Canada relies too heavily on these telecommunications providers to lead new infrastructure investments, instead of looking for alternative solutions. As one respondent, who did not provide their name said, this lack of choice and competition has led to some of the most expensive internet in the world. Another noted that access to high-speed internet shouldn’t depend on number of users or whether a profit can be made.

Jeff Klause, CEO of Voyageur Internet in Manitoba, noted a lack of open access and fair rates to support independent alternative providers and increase competition. There isn’t enough facilities-based competition to keep pricing in check. He added that the dependency on the telecom industry to solve the connection problems using public resources instead of supporting local development is a problem.

The economics of infrastructure investment may not be enough in a rural or remote community for a large ISP to invest in connecting that community to the internet. The community then relies on a smaller ISP that may not have (or be approved for) funding to access towers for first mile connectivity. As one respondent puts it: The fibre backbone is getting better, but we need more accessible and affordable towers, as well as more freedom to use spectrums.

The remote communities are a challenge due to the cost of implementing infrastructure that’s related to the density of the populations in rural and remote regions. ISPs cannot make the business case without having high-priced internet access in order to cover their investment,

says Glen Beer, vice-president with Exchange Global Server Centre, a secure data centre providing clients with hosting and technology services.

Beer added, Funding is available for internet service providers building infrastructure into communities however does not recognize the importance of cross-connect facilities that enable those ISPs to access low-cost connectivity.

Urban-based organizations also feel the pinch. The Vancouver Community Network (VCN) is a not-for-profit ISP that provides free services to assist individuals, community groups and non-profit organizations in accessing and utilizing the internet to its fullest ability. VCN’s executive director Tracey Axelsson believes the future of her organization as an ISP is uncertain because we simply can’t get in the same playing field as very large organizations, she said. In Vancouver, Telus is saying they’ll be completely fibre in the next couple of years. Even if we had invested in a better, faster, cheaper system, we wouldn’t be able to compete with that. It’s a never-ending kaleidoscope of trying to be in front of the technology where you don’t have the funding to make that work. If funding was not a problem, Axelsson shared that her dream project would include providing an open and free Wi-Fi network in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver.

Digital access

Lack of infrastructure — or prohibitively expensive infrastructure — typically results in an absence of digital access. Most respondents feel access is lacking in their community or province, and more specifically, in rural, remote communities and the Far North. They also feel there’s inadequate access for disadvantaged populations, including low-income individuals, Indigenous peoples and new Canadians, as well as the disabled and incarcerated people, is creating a two-tier society. Most agree home internet access is no longer a luxury, but essential for fully participating in society.

Even when infrastructure exists, there are barriers to access. There are tons of folks in rural areas that we can’t serve or can’t serve very well, said Shelley Robinson, executive director of National Capital FreeNet, a not-for-profit ISP in Ottawa. For some folks, they’ll even buy it if it’s 1.5 megabits, because they’re just so desperate.

Another issue is affordability. Survey participants commented on the need for a national affordability program that all ISPs could offer that takes into consideration cost and quality.

Though Robinson’s organization offers an unlimited use package for community housing tenants, once fees and taxes are added onto the $25 monthly rate, it’s no longer an option for many of them: “They just walk away.”

Some low-income folks scrimp on food so they can afford phones and home internet access, said Robinson. Many people think everyone has internet and it really is not the case. Then governments start digitizing their services, and it becomes more onerous for people to apply.

Targeted programs like those for families and community housing tenants are great, but we need to ensure everyone has access they can afford.

Plus, when we talk about communities of interest, there are people who may get tons of solace by participating in online communities, like trans folks. They shouldn’t have to choose between food and community. That, she says, exacerbates the digital divide.

One large segment of the population that’s getting left behind is seniors. We see, sadly, many people left out because they have no access to technology or they’re in a residence with two old computers sitting on a table somewhere, so access points with guided, consistent, trusted help are necessary, said Linda Fawcus, founder and CEO of Gluu Technology Society in Vancover. Handing people iPads isn’t going to help. Many libraries and community centres have computers and internet access, but seniors may have mobility issues.

In terms of how best to serve rural and remote communities, Brian Beaton, former program coordinator with K-Net notes, Existing programs, policies and services are created, applied and delivered in urban centres and their organizations. Too often these same programs, policies and services are simply expected to be transferable to remote and rural communities without any plan for a sustained and operational reality for helping them work effectively. It is important to have appropriate representatives from these different environments involved in all aspects of the development and implementation of any program, policy or service that impacts their members and region. K-Net is a First Nations owned and operated ICT service provider working with rural and remote First Nations across Ontario and elsewhere in Canada.

Lack of access in urban communities

Tracey Axelsson, executive director of the Vancouver Community Network said, It’s interesting because as a non-profit you always kind of feel like you have to qualify why you’re doing something in an urban centre. Supporting people where the largest cohort of impoverished people live — the extremely poor are actually not living in small towns— it’s completely dismissed as if it’s a fabrication. There is no urban funding at all.

Students in urban centres are affected by access, too.

It’s in the rural areas, yes, but it’s also downtown Toronto, downtown Montreal — it’s an issue. Kate Arthur, founder and director of Kids Code Jeunesse

In Montreal, Arthur's organization is working on a city-wide project in 150 schools and libraries to boost and stabilize Wi-Fi. Some of [the challenges to access] are technical, some are human, some are just bureaucracy.

Not all students have the same access to technology, so Kids Code Jeunesse provides opportunities to grow critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. You don’t need technology to do that, said Arthur. Kids Code Jeunesse offers unplugged activities for teachers and students, where skills such as critical-thinking, communication and collaboration are highlighted. This creates a bridge between computational thinking and coding, so if they don’t have the equipment, that’s fine, she said, but if they do that’s even better.

On a brighter note, getting licences and installing software on school computers has traditionally been a barrier. But many of these tools are becoming web-based, so access is becoming easier, said Andy Forest, chief instigator at STEAMLabs in Toronto, a community makerspace where people, including kids, come together to practice digital fabrication, coding and hands-on making and electronics.

Respondents worry about the perception that everyone is experiencing the internet in the same way – that everyone has access to the same tools and understands how to use them. But inequality in access and digital literacy exists. As many provincial and federal government services move online, the economic and educational gap will widen, increasing the burden on social support systems.

Digital Literacy

Digital access doesn’t necessarily lead to adoption. Providing better access is one thing; giving people the tools and resources they need to become digitally literate (and safe online) is another issue altogether. Digital literacy isn’t just about learning to code; in many cases, it’s about learning the fundamentals of using the internet.

When it comes to the greatest needs related to digital literacy in Canada, nearly a quarter of survey respondents cited understanding personal digital security as their top concern, followed by basic internet navigation skills and the ability to recognize a credible online source. The group seen as having the greatest need was seniors, followed closely by low-income citizens, children/youth and Indigenous peoples.

The layer that we’re looking to address is support for teachers. I think there’s a fairly broad acknowledgement that digital literacy is important, but teachers aren’t feeling empowered.” Andy Forest, chief instigator at STEAMLabs

All education boards know they need to get there, but I think support for teachers is the biggest, most important piece of the puzzle right now. They need the confidence to nurture digital aptitude and creativity in their students.

Who is being left behind?

Digital access is lacking for many seniors and unfortunately, so is digital literacy. Many people born before 1960 don’t understand the basics and have no easy way to get that information, said Linda Fawcus, founder and CEO of Gluu Technology Society. They feel as though — and rightly so — they’re being left out of the modern world as technology advances.

While some libraries offer classes on how to use the internet, they’re not necessarily targeted at older adults. Those seniors who have these skills will be able to connect to their families, communities and doctors; those that don’t are going to be left behind, said Fawcus.

We think of social isolation now as someone who doesn’t physically see people. Soon that will expand to those who are not able to connect to people online.

Linda Fawcus, founder and CEO of Gluu Technology Society

Gluu’s programs help seniors become more digitally literate. Fawcus points to a 94-year-old client with two cats; the only time she’d get in her car was to drive a block away so she could buy a 30-pound bag of kitty litter. After learning basic digital literacy skills, she was able to set up an Amazon Prime membership, so the kitty litter could be delivered to her doorstep. That enabled her to envision a future where she doesn’t need a car, she said. That’s because she could open up to the internet to provide a service for her.

Another group being left behind is Indigenous women. Indigenous women are by far the most affected by the digital divide. They are the group that probably aren’t served the most, said Zeina Osman, co-executive director of Compucorps, a high-tech charity that helps the underprivileged gain access to low-cost computers, technological services and technical training.

It’s not about turning everyone into a coder but equipping them with the knowledge to feel comfortable online, to feel secure online, to feel like they could flourish online.

Zeina Osman, Co-executive director, CompuCorps

That’s where they got the idea for a project funded by CIRA’s Community Investment Program, where 100 Indigenous women could take courses to learn the fundamentals of computing. The challenge for these women, however, was dedicating five to six hours a week at the centre. So, they came up with another idea: holding workshops based on the interest of community groups and offering three drop-in days at the centre with one-on-one sessions in the computer lab. It worked out much better than anticipated, said Osman. We saw a greater volume of participation.

New Canadians are another group of note. When we’re talking about digital literacy, immigrant women are the most marginalized because generally when they arrive here they are dependent on their husband or family. But our research shows the internet can help them develop some autonomy, said Christian Agbobli, director of the Social and Public Communication Department at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

When new Canadians arrive, they may be competent in their field of expertise, but that doesn’t mean they’re competent in the digital aspect of that expertise, he said. The way they use technology in their homeland is not the way you use it here. He believes there’s a need for additional resources to help new Canadians, particularly when it comes to security and privacy online.

Privacy and security

Those lacking in digital literacy skills are more likely to fall prey to malware, online scams and social engineering attacks, such as phishing. This has a ripple effect, undercutting security and privacy. When asked if the average Canadian understands today’s cybersecurity threats, three quarters of respondents disagreed with that statement.

At our organization we get people coming in all the time asking us about things like phishing schemes because they’re not sure what’s a legitimate email and what’s not and how they deal with it in an appropriate manner, said Ryan Fukunaga of Free Geek in Toronto. There’s a learning curve there and people need to learn about that. What does a legitimate thing look like? And what does a scam look like? Free Geek Toronto is a not-for-profit social enterprise that provides low-cost, refurbished computers and other devices, digital literacy training and access to a computer lab for those without a device or internet access.

In addition to cybersecurity, survey respondents also expressed concern that in today’s political climate, fake news and propaganda can be dangerous, and the need for basic critical thinking and fact checking is crucial. According to one respondent, authentication of [online] information is vital to a democracy, and teaching ethical use is important for youth. Understanding privacy rights and how privacy is compromised online are also important skills to staying safe and secure, according to survey respondents.

Citizens use the internet to better their lives, but they also need to be able to judge and filter what they read, as this protects them from scams and ensures that people are making choices based on reliable information, said Shelley Robinson, executive director of National Capital FreeNet in Ottawa. [This is] important for them, and for democracy. And people need to understand the implications of exchanging their privacy for free services and how to protect their privacy while still using the internet.

Consumers are not necessarily aware that their online journey may be influenced without their knowledge, or the impact that sharing personal information may have on them.

Jules Bélanger Option Consommateurs, Montreal

We note that consumers of digital content do not fully appreciate what they consent to when they agree to terms of service or privacy policies, said Jules Bélanger with Option Consommateurs, a not-for-profit organization in Montreal that promotes and defends the interests of consumers.

Cyberattacks are becoming more sophisticated and the consumer may never be aware that his computer or connected device is infected, he said. For example, internet-connected devices in people’s homes (such as printers and security cameras) could be used for cyberattacks and controlled remotely. Young Canadians are generally more familiar with technology but less aware of the risks they face. In contrast, older people have a better understanding of these risks but do not have the appropriate computer knowledge. Through a CIRA Community Investment grant, Option Consommateurs recently launched resources to help Canadians better understand security and privacy risks and solutions related to Internet-of-Things devices.

And, while there are several resources provided by the federal and provincial governments or by civil organizations, consumers don’t necessarily know these resources exist, so education is required. Also, some resources require a certain level of knowledge that the average Canadian doesn’t have, such as installing a protection plugin in an internet browser or updating the firmware of a connected object — an issue that comes back to digital literacy.

Funding

Nearly 70 per cent of survey respondents noted that funding is not readily available to their organization. While there are several avenues for funding related to infrastructure, digital access and digital literacy, many programs are only available to registered charities or the application parameters are too narrow for some organizations. In many cases, funding is limited to a specific period of time, which affects the ongoing nature of these programs. There is also intense competition for limited funds.

A large pool of funding tends to focus on learning to code — which most respondents agree is important, but isn’t relevant if people don’t have basic digital literacy skills. As one respondent put it, not every young person will grow up to be a coder or programmer, but everyone will need to live and thrive in a digital world.

While Gluu Technology Society, for example, has received funding to provide cybersecurity workshops for seniors, what they’re doing is perceived as kind of boring, said Linda Fawcus, the organization’s founder and CEO. Teaching seniors how to use a search engine or confidently change a password isn’t perceived as interesting, or necessary, compared to teaching kids to code. It’s not sexy in a technology way, she said.

Zeina Osman, co-executive director of Compucorps, agrees. A big challenge over the past 10 years is that not very many funders found digital literacy as sexy enough or important enough, she said. It’s exciting to see that people are now interested in digital literacy. The work we’ve been doing is finally getting a spotlight and now we have to compete for funding [with organizations that aren’t] doing the background work. It takes a long time to do the needs assessment for each of these communities.

Funding consistency is another issue that comes up repeatedly by survey respondents. We don’t have consistent government funding so we have to rely on foundations who support us. It takes a lot of time to see results. It took us nearly seven years to have this great, ongoing program and we don’t want to have to stop it, said Osman. [Funding discussions] should include those of us who work on the front line.

Barriers to funding

Some organizations don’t even know about the funding available to them. That connection was totally missing even after seeking help from the local MRC (regional county municipalities in Quebec), federal and provincial institutions. There was no one to refer anything. We are only three people holding down the fort. A lack of knowledge and the time to look into those available funds [keep us from getting funding], noted a community radio organization in Quebec who preferred not to be named.

Another barrier for not-for-profits or smaller organizations is the short timeline for funding. Jeff Klause, CEO of Voyageur Internet, noted a lack of ongoing funding, with few opportunities for large projects such as the Government of Canada’s Connect to Innovate (CTI) or the previous Connecting Canadians programs. Manitoba gets the least amount of funding and is constantly overlooked. Even the most recent round of CTI funding gave Manitoba less than its population base portion of the $500 million, and we have some of the highest needs in Canada. The feds say that is because the Province of Manitoba is not stepping up for their portion, but when you are a have-not province, that is foolish logic.

An onerous application process

Zeina Osman, co-executive director of Compucorps, also says more flexibility is required during the application process. Not every organization can afford a $10,000 financial audit every year. Funders will list an insane amount of requirements and deliverables on organizations. I think our funding structure needs to be re-evaluated to make sure they’re not keeping out great ideas, projects and charities because they don’t have a full-time accountant.

Applying for grants is a cumbersome process, said Clarice Leader with Innovative LIFE Options Inc., a non-profit that provides resources, training and guidance to each person who receives In the Company of Friends funding (a funding model offered by Manitoba Department of Families to Manitobans with intellectual disabilities). There is absolutely no reason why all of the paperwork that needs to be submitted to government couldn’t be done electronically. And it changes with every change of government.

Many survey respondents feel that provincial or national grants tend to go to much larger organizations. The programs and their requirements are structured so only telecom corporations and similar groups are able to access these funds, said Brian Beaton, former program coordinator of K-Net, a First Nations owned and operated ICT service provider working with rural and remote First Nations across Ontario and elsewhere in Canada.

Adding that there needs to be appreciation for and respect of local innovators and capacities to successfully own and manage digital networks beyond supporting private corporations.

Rob McMahon, assistant professor of communications and community engagement with the University of Alberta, proposes multi-phased funding.

If you’re a community organization operating on a shoestring, you should be provided additional time to put together a proposal, making sure these groups have resources and time for the funding that’s available. If you’re a large company, you can hire people or direct staff to prepare the application. You shouldn’t be penalized because you’re small.

Rob McMahon, Assistant professor of communications and technology, university of alberta

Beyond traditional funding

Beyond money, respondents said they would benefit from other supports, such as:

  • More volunteers and better industry support.

  • Equipment, including tablets, laptops and desktops.

  • Cloud services and free or low-cost access to rack space in an IXP.

  • Lower backhaul costs from wholesale suppliers.

  • IT professional support or technical training for staff.

  • Technical support for web development work.

  • Interest-free loans.

  • Use of space for workshops.

  • Air Miles or travel support.

  • Access to resources for expanding their reach or promoting their services.

  • Networking with similar organizations who have received funding.

What Canada is getting right

Despite the gaps presented in this report, there are many bright spots in Canada’s internet.

Projects like Ontario’s SWIFT (a not-for-profit broadband initiative that’s funding the construction of open-access, ultra-high-speed fibre optic broadband in Southwestern Ontario, Caledon and the Niagara Region) was noted as a positive example of what can be done.

Survey respondents pointed out several other bright spots. There are more IXPs than five years ago, connecting many small and medium networks. Major urban areas are building up their internet infrastructure through these IXPs, like Montreal (QIX), Vancouver (VanIX), Toronto (TorIX) and Calgary (YYCIX). Fibre across the country is becoming more accessible to small ISPs; large fibre transit companies are taking an interest in Canada and setting up infrastructure.

Broadband Communications North is connecting more than 50 northern, rural and remote communities in Manitoba. Beginning this spring, Distributel Communications and Eeyou Communications Network (ECN) are partnering to deliver a “triple play bundle” of residential high-speed internet, home phone and television services to the Cree communities of Eeyou Istchee and the municipalities of the Eeyou Istchee James Bay region in northern Quebec, using the new ECN Fibre to the Home network.

The rural community of Olds, Alberta, is offering ultra-fast internet speeds thanks to a project by the town’s non-profit economic development foundation (the Olds Institute for Community & Regional Development). Stratford, Ontario, has invested in an integrated fibre/Wi-Fi platform that provides internet connectivity anywhere in the city. The Atwater Library in Montreal offers computer training in a dedicated lab, with workshops throughout the year. And the Ottawa PC Users’ Group (OPCUG) has provided more than 500 workshops at local libraries, teaching people basic computer and internet skills.

There is an emphasis on digital literacy across the country and digital literacy educators are integrating their teachings into other learning opportunities to enhance their reach.

We combine our programs with others. So if we want to do a workshop on digital security or basic things like how to use Google maps, it’s added to another program that may focus on mental health issues or supporting newcomers to Canada, says Ryan Fukunaga of Free Geek Toronto. Integrating programs makes our workshops more accessible because while many people may be not sign up for a coding workshop, if it’s part of something else and we’re having someone come in to talk about how to add a two-step verification to email, that’s not a big step for someone. That’s something they can do in a very small way that helps them in the long term.

Andy Forest of STEAMLabs in Toronto added, I think Canada is doing a lot of amazing things in digital literacy. All of the ministries of education across all of the provinces have some kind of focus on this right now. And it’s not only the digital technologies, it’s also the 21st century learning skills that go along with that: creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication. These are all important skills for the future and they’re really enabled by digital literacy skills. So I think that’s a really bright spot.

Survey respondents also pointed out various wish-list items, such as the BBC Micro:bit project in the U.K., which provided every 11-year-old child in the country with a programmable microcontroller and resulted in a massive increase in coding programs at schools — something that would cost approximately $15 million to roll out across Canada.

Other wish-list items include a hotspot program similar to the one offered by the New York Public Library for low-income families, as well as creating a digital literacy workshop that could be rolled out to communities across Canada with a special focus on parents with low digital literacy skills.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

There’s still limited infrastructure in many remote, rural and northern communities and there’s not a strong financial incentive for the private sector to support these communities. But Rob McMahon, assistant professor of communications and community engagement with the University of Alberta, counters the argument that people in these communities don’t have the capacity to support themselves.

In areas that don’t have infrastructure, people are often doing it themselves, putting out satellite dishes, rolling out fibre optics, doing whatever it takes, said McMahon.

Moving from infrastructure to skills or digital literacy, sometimes the argument gets made there’s not enough educated people in these communities to operate it. I disagree with that. I work with a lot of organizations and they definitely have capacity, but there are barriers around how they get access to funding.

Rob McMahon, Assistant professor of communications and technology, university of alberta

He points to connectivity statistics: Once infrastructure gets installed, data usage shoots up like a rocket — they’re on there, they’re Facebooking, they’re using Instagram, everybody is on their phone, he said. “I was far, far up in northern Quebec, and people are walking around with their iPhones. They don’t even have cellphone service, but they’re connected with Wi-Fi.”

Another idea is allowing a community to own the physical infrastructure but offering open access, so different organizations could lease it and compete on a service level. I would say that what needs to happen is community ownership of the process and of the infrastructure, said McMahon. Communities can partner with all kinds of companies and organizations. I’m a supporter of the community network movement because I think that allows the average citizen more input, more control and more benefits.

What we learned

Increasing inequality comes at a time when internet access is essential for procuring goods and services, including government services. The digital divide is growing, and many survey respondents believe funding must be adjusted as a result. While Canada prides itself on being a tech hub, and there are many success stories, some Canadians are falling behind.

Addressing the needs of marginalized or underserved groups remains a key issue, because as our society moves online, they need to be confident in expressing themselves and participating in the digital world.

As one respondent put it: Otherwise they have no voice.

In addition to highlighting the experiences of grassroots organizations working to build a better online Canada, through this report, CIRA encourages Canadian internet stakeholders to discuss and debate some of the issues raised. Below are recommendations surfaced in this report that will hopefully act as a catalyst to begin these important discussions.

  1. Fund basic digital literacy skills.

    To fully participate in Canada’s digital society, all Canadians must have the skills to get online, use the internet and navigate it safely and confidently. This is particularly important for marginalized groups including seniors, low-income individuals, Indigenous peoples (particularly in rural/remote communities), new Canadians and people with disabilities.

  2. Incorporate basic cybersecurity and privacy training into pre-existing learning opportunities, particularly for marginalized populations.

    People may not be aware of the importance of basic cybersecurity training, or they may be too intimidated by the content to attend a training session. However, if you incorporate it into pre-existing learning opportunities, such as course related to mental health, daily finances, or job hunting, this is a great way to reach people with vital information that can help them get online and navigate the web safely.

  3. Grow Canada’s IXP network and encourage more peering.

    As Canadians’ privacy fears grow, it is imperative to ensure Canadian data meant to stay within our borders does so. Canadian IXPs provide this solution by offering data sovereignty through local data exchange.

  4. Make first-mile connectivity a priority and encourage local innovation and community ownership.

    Local investment, open network access and support for smaller internet service providers to complete the first-mile of internet connectivity is currently not a priority and should be. Partnering with community members, laying more fibre, and looking for innovative ways to connect all communities with affordable, high-quality internet must be a priority for organizations working to build a better online Canada.

  5. Develop a national affordability program that considers both price and quality.

    Even where internet is provided at a lower rate to some individuals, the quality of the internet they receive remains low, making it difficult to fully participate in Canada’s digital society. A national program that looks at cost and quality will help lift those individuals who don’t have reliable internet access up and into the digital world.

  6. Develop critical thinking/problem solving skills among youth.

    Not everyone has internet access at home, or an internet-connected device. Ensuring there are learning opportunities for youth in critical thinking and problem solving provides the base for digital literacy – something youth will need when they are connected in the future.

  7. Empower teachers.

    Teachers spend hours a day with students, teaching them every subject. Yet many lack the skills or confidence to teach and encourage digital learning in their students. This is improving as more school boards recognize the benefits of coding education. Empowering all teachers to nurture digital skills will help prepare Canadian students for an ever-growing online future.

  8. Review funding models, particularly with a lens for supporting small, grassroots organizations.

    Difficult application processes, expensive requirements and short timelines were noted as funding challenges for many organizations. These are all the more difficult for small, under-resourced organizations. A review of funding models and programs that might be keeping small but impactful organizations out, will allow more to apply and, hopefully, receive funding.

  9. Consider non-financial support for grassroots organizations.

    While financial support is needed, small organizations also require non-financial support, which funders should consider. This includes offering volunteer services such as IT support, equipment or space to hold workshops, cloud services, interest free loans and helping promote their organization’s services.

  10. Find ways to link up best practices across the country.

    There are many bright spots in Canada’s internet. Given the vastness of Canada, successful efforts and programs need to connect in order to build up and grow what is already going well.

About CIRA and this report

CIRA is a member-based, not-for-profit organization, which manages the .CA internet domain on behalf of all Canadians, developing and implementing projects that support Canada’s internet community and representing the .CA Registry internationally. CIRA is building a better online Canada through the Community Investment Program by funding innovative projects led by charities, not-for-profits and academic institutions that are making the internet better for all Canadians. Every .CA domain name registered or renewed contributes to this program. To date, CIRA has provided $5.45 million in contributions.

In January and February 2018, CIRA reached out to organizations across Canada through a survey, phone interviews and video interviews to help identify key issues, needs and funding gaps with respect to internet infrastructure, digital access, digital literacy and funding gaps. In particular, CIRA sought out grassroots organizations and individuals working in and around Canada’s internet, including not-for-profits, charities, academics and small internet service providers. The survey CIRA shared with organizations in Canada sought to learn more about their perspectives, experiences and challenges. Follow-up interviews were conducted with some participants. Interviews were conducted by Vawn Himmelsbach (Canadian Press Enterprises Inc.).

Participants

A total of 70 organizations participated in the CIRA survey. The following organizations agreed to be listed as participants. We have placed a star* in front of those organizations that have received a CIRA Community Investment grant, other CIRA financial support or are affiliated with CIRA or its board of directors (as of March 2018).

  • *Chebucto Community Net

  • CHUO 89.1 FM

  • *CompuCorps Mentoring Inc.

  • *Exchange Global Server Centre (XGSC Inc.)

  • *Free Geek Toronto

  • Gluu Technology Society

  • *Internet Society

  • *Kids Code Jeunesse

  • *K-Net

  • LIFE Options Inc.

  • Maison Radio Memphrémagog for Radio Webphré

  • *National Capital FreeNet

  • *OpenMedia

  • *Option Consommateurs

  • R U On the Net Inc.

  • *STEAMLabs

  • SwiftHighSpeed.com

  • *Telecommunities Canada

  • *Université du Québec à Montréal

  • *Vancouver Community Network

  • Voyageur Internet Inc.

Glossary

The first mile
The first mile, often also referred to as the “last mile or last kilometer” is a colloquial phrase widely used in the telecommunications, cable television and internet industries to refer to the final leg of the telecommunications networks that deliver telecommunication services to retail end-users (customers). More specifically, the last mile refers to the portion of the telecommunications network chain that physically reaches the end-user's premises. This report uses the term first mile connectivity exclusively as it is more equitable and less urban-centric. (Source: Wikipedia.org and Why the First Mile and not the Last by Lynnita Paisley and Don Richardson)
Fake news
Fake news is propaganda or false news that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media. (source: Wikipedia.org)
Mackenzie Valley fibre link
The Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link (MVFL) project was contracted by the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) to bring telecommunications and high-speed internet access to a variety of communities in the Mackenzie Valley region in the Northwest Territories. (Source: www.mvflproject.com)
Internet Exchange Points
An IXP (Internet Exchange Point) is a hub where independent networks can interconnect directly to one another, providing high-bandwidth and low-latency access at a lower cost than traditional transit. (Source: www.cira.ca/ixp)
Malware
Malware, short for malicious software, is an umbrella term used to refer to a variety of forms of hostile or intrusive software. Malware is defined by its malicious intent, acting against the requirements of the computer user — and so does not include software that causes unintentional harm due to some deficiency. (Source: Wikipedia.org)
Phishing
Phishing is the attempt to obtain sensitive information such as usernames, passwords, and credit card details (and money), often for malicious reasons, by disguising as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication. (Source: Wikipedia.org)
Connect to Innovate
A Canadian government program that will invest $500 million by 2021 to bring high-speed internet to 330 rural and remote communities in Canada. (Source: www.canada.ca)