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A Canadian Telecom Is Limiting a Free WiFi Program For Low-Income Families

Closing the digital divide isn't profitable.

by Jordan Pearson
Jun 17 2016, 6:12pm

Image: Flickr/danisabella

Update: On June 21, Telus confirmed they are the service provider. Their response to this story, which was emailed to Motherboard, appears below.

It's tough to get ahead without the internet in a time when many of us can't even find the nearest burrito joint without Google's help, much less find a job.

Because not everyone can afford to have a decent internet connection, libraries across North America have started to offer WiFi hotspot lending programs. People can sign out a little device with a data package that gives them free internet until they have to return it to the library.

In places like New York and Chicago, these devices come with unlimited data plans. But in Toronto, where public libraries have just started a similar WiFi lending pilot program with funds from Google and the city, WiFi hotspots have a data cap of 10 gigabytes per month. That's enough to send some emails and fill out online forms, but forget about downloading large files, computer updates, or streaming video on YouTube.

The reason for this limitation is simple: Canadian telecoms are refusing to offer more data for a program that gives digitally disenfranchised people a lifeline when they need it, according to library staff who spoke to Motherboard.

"We weren't given any option"

"Unlimited data plans aren't really available in Canada," said Sara Tavakolian, the project lead on the Toronto Public Libraries' WiFi program. "Our goal was to get an unlimited data plan, but we weren't given any option."

"Hopefully the publicity about this, and the support from the city and Google, will allow us to negotiate a more affordable and flexible data plan going forward," said Tavakolian.

Library patrons may borrow devices for up to six months, but if they go over the allotted 10 gigabytes, the device automatically shuts off until the first of the next month. To give you an idea of how little data per month that is, even Bell's most basic home internet plan offers 75 gigabytes of usage.

Tavakolian said that the library isn't revealing the name of their partner telecom. Rogers confirmed that it is not the provider for the program, and media requests sent to Bell and Telus were not immediately answered.

According to Tavakolian, the data cap on the library's devices will work for the pilot project participants, which are situated in low-income areas of Toronto. The idea is that they'll be able to send emails and look for work, but not much more. "If we start lending to everybody, then I don't know that it would work with the current data plan," Tavakolian said.

GIven the very real struggles that low-income families face, like putting food on the table, streaming video might sound like a silly luxury to harp on. But don't the poor deserve to browse YouTube, too? Should their online life be relegated to the most boring parts of the web?

The handful of companies that make up Canada's protected telecom oligarchy have long been singled out as the main factor contributing to what critics have dubbed the country's "digital divide." The Toronto Public Library's WiFi lending program seeks to bridge inter-city disparities in income and connectedness, but the same dynamic is at play across the country.

In northern regions, where infrastructure can be scarce, a stable internet connection can be a luxury. This leaves some communities without access to online learning tools, healthcare resources, and entertainment options.

The federal government has attempted to solve this problem by incentivizing telecoms to build infrastructure in these more thinly populated regions. And yet, the digital divide persists, simply because closing it isn't profitable.

It's truly a shame that this thinking is still clearly on display in the Toronto Public Library's WiFi lending program.

Telus' response: The library's communication does not reflect our ongoing collaboration in identifying a way to make this new, innovative program work as well as possible for low-income library users. No ISP responded to the library's initial RFP because, frankly, their proposal wasn't workable. We were the only ISP that then stepped forward to work with them on other potential solutions, which resulted in them moving ahead with a standard plan we have for public sector clients interested in WiFi hotspots as a pilot project. We expect the offering will evolve in the coming weeks and months as we learn from this pilot – possibly to include new programs being developed with the City of Toronto – and we're committed to working in a respectful, open manner with the library on that evolution.