Why broadband access is an essential learning tool

Vol. 4, No. 8 (Spring 2023)
Brian Hotson, Editor, CWCR/RCCR

I recently was going into a shop in a stripmall, and one of my son’s friends from school was sitting on the sidewalk outside the store playing on their phone. I chatted with them a bit, and then asked if either of their parents was in this shop. “No. I come here because we don’t have internet at home.”

In a recent  Education Equality and Accountability Office (EQAO) survey of grade 9 students in Ontario, only 55.2% indicated that they had “access to strong internet connection at home to complete my schoolwork.” In real numbers, of the 103,816 students who responded to the EQAO survey, 3502 (3.4%) said that they do not have strong access to the internet; 1236 students (1.2%) indicated that they have strong access “hardly ever.” Eight hundred and twenty-four (0.8%) students in grade 9 in Ontario indicated that they “never” have access to the Internet (EQAO, 2023; see Figs. 1 & 2).

A sample of school boards with significant rural and Indigenous populations (Algoma, Ontario North East, and Near North) had lower access to the Internet, as well as to laptops/desktops, compared to urban or suburban populations (Durham and Ottawa-Carleton), shown in Table 1.

Comparison of Internet and computer access for grade 9 students
in Ontario, by school board.

As someone who’s lived in both north western as well as in southern Ontario, in very small rural and very large urban communities, these numbers are not surprising.

In 2020-2021, there were 1,429,347 students in Ontario enrolled in secondary school (grades 9-12) (Statista, 2023a). Applying the EQAO number 0.8% here, the result is 11,434 secondary students without access to the Internet. If, on average, a high school in Ontario has ~710 students,ꟸ the 11,434 students is equivalent to ~16 high schools without Internet access, never mind broadband. Together, the Algoma District School Board (9) and District School Board Ontario North East (10) have 19 secondary schools. Viewed this way, this lack of connectivity should be considered an emergency.

What about broadband access?

What about numbers for Canada? This is not easily discovered. A 2020 StatsCan survey report shows that 94% of Canadian households have access to the internet (StatsCan, 2021) and a Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) report in 2021 shows similar numbers: 7.5% of Canadian households do not have access to the internet. This might make it appear as though Internet connectivity in Canada is strong. It ranks in the top 30 nations by connectivity at 92% compared to 60% globally, and ahead of Sweden (91%) and Germany (88%) (World Bank, 2023c). But, in real numbers, 7.5% of households nationally equals nearly 1.2 million people without internet access. Further, only two-thirds of Canadian households have broadband internet (StatsCan, 2021a) (rated as 50 megabits per second download and 10 megabytes upload) (FCC, 2014). In British Columbia, for example, according to B.C.’s auditor general, “…60% of rural and remote communities and 62% of rural and remote Indigenous communities still lack adequate [broadband] internet” (Indigenous Partnerships…, 2023, February 22).

In British Columbia, for example, according to B.C.’s auditor general, “…60% of rural and remote communities and 62% of rural and remote Indigenous communities still lack adequate [broadband] internet” (Indigenous Partnerships…, 2023, February 22).

The federal government’s High-Speed Access for All: Canada’s Connectivity Strategy promises through its $3.2 billion Universal Broadband Fund to “bring Internet at speeds of 50/10 Megabits per second (Mbps) to rural and remote communities” (Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, 2022), “toward ensuring that 98 per cent of Canadians have access to [broadband] internet by 2026, and 100 per cent by 2030” (Government of Ontario, 2023, March 16). Unfortunately, those students who don’t have broadband access now will be in their 20s in 2030. The difference in access to broadband is often the difference in being able to participate in a webinar (with video), watch HD video, or running several data-heavy applications at the same time. This is significant considering online delivery of course materials, tutoring, and instruction in education.

Broadband is a public health issue

Broadband access is a well-known determinant of public health, as “broadband access is important given its impact on other social determinants of health, including education and employment opportunities” (Bauerly, McCord, Hulkower, & Pepin, 2019, p. 39).

Given that the internet has become a fundamental component of so many aspects of American life, broadband access is increasingly recognized as an important social determinant of health as well as a public health issue. (Bauerly, McCord, Hulkower, & Pepin, 2019, p. 39)

In 2023, the Ontario Minister of Rural Economic Development, Gudie Hutchings, agreed,

We all know that the internet is no longer a luxury in this day and age—it’s a necessity. Having fast, reliable internet helps rural Canadians by levelling the playing field to access essential services like health care and education, participate in the digital economy… (Government of Ontario, 2023, March 16)

This is a recognition of what the federal government calls, “a national connectivity gap” (Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, 2022). This gap is evident in the urban/rural divide in Canada, “[n]early all Canadian households (95%)” in urban areas “had a home Internet connection, compared with 88% of those living outside” of urban areas (Stats Can, 2021b). This isn’t a surprise to Indigenous communities, as these communities have heard promises of connectivity before. In 2004, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) passed the First Nation Telecommunication Technologies and Broadband Infrastructure resolution. The

​​resolution recognizes the socio-economic importance of broadband connectivity in First Nations across the country. It directs the AFN leadership to ensure that Industry Canada (both regional and national programs) complete the job of ensuring that all Aboriginal communities have the opportunity to develop and maintain their own broadband infrastructure. (Kakepetum, 2005)

But these connectivity problems continue, even as the importance of broadband access grows.

Broadband, tech, and rights

Early & Hernandez reason, in Digital disenfranchisement and COVID-19: broadband internet access as a social determinant of health (2021), “[a]ccess to broadband internet has become a basic need. The COVID-19 pandemic has unearthed our reliance on broadband internet, not as a luxury but as an essential utility such as water and electricity” (p. 609). They go on to say,

Advocating for access to broadband internet should also go beyond just calling for adequate infrastructure for widespread connection: Access also includes making it affordable, creating inclusive technologies, and enhancing people’s digital literacy to use the technology. (p. 609)

In Australia, broadband access was recognized by their federal government as a right as a result of lack of access and age discrimination:

The social and economic consequences of the relative disadvantage experienced by older Australians in using the Internet has led Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan to characterize this disadvantage as a form of age discrimination. (Australian Human Rights Commission, n.d.)

Currently, as many as 13 countries recognize access to the internet as a right in various forms, but few mention broadband specifically. Spain, in 2011, “added broadband access to its universal service, and stipulated that broadband connection…is to be provided through any technology (Agencia Estatal Boletín Oficial del Estado, 2011; Psaila, 2022). Other countries that recognize broadband as a fundamental right include Finland and Kenya (Psaila, 2022).

In Kenya’s 2013 National Broadband Strategy, the national government describes the changes to the constitution to assure broadband access to its citizens: the “Constitution of Kenya 2010…provides for information access to all citizens as a basic right and the recognition that Kenya aspires to be a globally competitive and prosperous nation” (p. 3).

Equal access is a human right

For countries such as Kenya, the digital divide is significant, not only within Kenya, but in its ability to join the global knowledge society, and its commerce and exchange. Its National Broadband Strategy (2013) was updated in the National Broadband Strategy 2018-2023 (2018). This 2018 report recognized issues with connectivity,

…the first National Broadband Strategy (2013-2017) that aimed at transforming Kenya into a knowledge-based society enabled by high-capacity nationwide broadband connectivity. Besides infrastructure capacity limitations and inadequate institutional framework, cyber security, privacy and data protection have also in part affected the uptake of broadband services in Kenya.

The government of Kenya recognizes that moving toward universal broadband access is key for many reasons,

“Government intends to leverage broadband to deliver…food security, universal healthcare, affordable housing and manufacturing… the government aims at increasing access to broadband coverage of 3G to 94% of the population by 2020; and increase digital literacy in schools to 85%, expand broadband to the 47 counties and especially to have 50% digital literacy amongst the workforce. (Ministry of Information Communication and Technology, 2018, .. 10).

Importantly, Kenya’s strategy ensures “[a]ll citizens including children in primary schools and adults across the country would be empowered through digital literacy and awareness” (p. 14).

For countries such as Kenya with large rural populations (72% in 2021 (World Bank, 2023b)), broadband access becomes fundamental. Globally, 44% of people live in rural areas (World Bank, 2023c), many with conditions similar to Kenya.

According to the World Bank, globally in 2021, 1.23 billion people had access to “fixed broadband subscriptions” (World Bank, 2023d), which is only 16%. At the same time, globally in 2023, it is estimated that 86% of us own a smart phone, with a projected near-universal ownership in 2030 (Statista, 2023b).

For those living in Canada, broadband was declared a basic service by the CRTC in 2016: the

Commission is establishing the following universal service objective: Canadians, in urban areas as well as in rural and remote areas, have access to voice services and broadband Internet access services, on both fixed and mobile wireless networks. (italics in the original) (CRTC, 2016, December 21)

The Commission declares broadband as “essential,”

In rural and remote communities, high-quality broadband Internet access service is essential for accessing services that may not otherwise be available due to distance (e.g. health services via videoconferencing and education). Further, increasing reliance by banks and governments on virtual services requires reliable broadband Internet access services in all areas, including in rural and remote areas. (CRTC, 2016, December 21)

What the commission failed to do is cap the price of broadband service, like it did with basic TV services (at $25/month in 2016) (Pedwell, 2016, December 21). While the federal government’s 2022 Connecting Families initiative proposes a $20 monthly rate for “low income families and seniors,” the “initiative relies on Internet service providers” to “participate voluntarily and without government subsidy.” A March 2023 Auditor General’s report criticized the federal government for the continued “digital divide” between rural and urban areas, “including First Nations reserves” (Connectivity in Rural and Remote Areas, 2023). OpenMedia, an internet-access advocacy group, goes further, “[t]he government and CRTC must ensure that both connectivity and affordability are key cornerstones to their funding for Internet buildout” (2023, March 27). Access to the cable that connects to broadband is not enough, when many cannot afford connection.

“Canadians can’t imagine moving to an area lacking broadband. Almost six in 10 Canadians say it’s very unlikely they would purchase a home in a location without access to high-speed internet. Only one in 10 says it is likely they’d be willing to make such a purchase.” (Canada’s Internet Factbook 2021)

Chatting about broadband

While a great deal of digital ink is being spilled on ChatGPT and other Large Language Models (LLMs) tools, we in higher education need to also remember about the inequity and injustice of who has access to broadband and the equipment need to employ it, and for those 1.2 million Canadians who do not have access to the internet at all. This is a global issue that we need to keep in mind when assigning writing projects or providing online tutoring and writing support. To keep this in front of my mind, I remember my son’s friend getting their internet on a sidewalk in a stripmall.

ꟸ ~ 650,000 secondary students in Ontario / 920 publics secondary schools in Ontario = ~710 students per school (Council of Ministers of Education, 2023; Statista, 2023).


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