National campaign asks for cheaper high-speed internet and subsidized computers for low and moderate-income households

Cindy Gering has lived without a computer for three months.

“It's stressful. I struggle with depression and anxiety,” she says. “The computer is a lifeline for me. My Facebook friends are a support network for me.”

“It felt like withdrawal for the first couple months” without a computer, laughs Gering.

When it comes to looking up a doctor's diagnosis, Gering, a 37-year-old living on disability allowance, relies on the kindness of friends to do her internet research. “I'm not really comfortable going through the library system. It's awkward for me. I feel more comfortable in my own home.”

She was one of a small group who rallied with ACORN Canada outside the BellAliant building on Barrington Street on Halloween. ACORN – an association of low- and moderate-income households – is calling on the CRTC to regulate the telecom industry to provide $10/month high-speed internet and subsidized computers for people below the low-income cut off.

Gering says that when she's putting money towards internet, she cuts costs on everything from a haircut to putting together her apartment. She doesn't own a cell phone either. “Quick things you wouldn't think twice about,” such as accessing a bus schedule, is very difficult without personal internet access, she says.

According to Statistics Canada data from 2010, only 54 per cent of households in the lowest quartile of $30,000 or less have home Internet access, compared with 97 per cent of households who do have access in the top income quartile of $87,000 or more.

ACORN also released a nation-wide “horror report” that compiles data from 284 respondents across Canada about their internet and cell phone service. Bell ranked the worst, with 79 per cent of respondents reporting they were dissatisfied with their services.

Rogers, Eastlink, Fido, and Telus trailed behind, with only slightly better results. Fifty-five per cent of respondents reported they were dissatisfied overall with their cell and internet companies and 56 per cent reported mistakes on their bills, which resulted in extra charges.

More than half of respondents reported finding their contracts complicated to understand, frustration with service providers, and receiving bills exceeding the contract amount. 

ACORN member Evan Coole says the campaign is targeting big telecom industry leaders to set the standard for others to follow. “It's important to hit the big guys first,” he says.

“In a magic wand scenario, I'd ask for free wi-fi on a city-wide basis, but I'm not sure the government is there yet,” Coole says. As someone who has worked in the hospitality industry, he says it's tough to rely on an open cafe or library to check often-erratic shift schedules.

Sarah Dawson, a spokesperson for Bell Aliant, wrote in an email that the company “offers competitively-priced Internet service consistent with other services providers,” but did not say whether the company would consider subsidies.

“Bell Aliant’s primary community investment focus is on mental health to fund anti-stigma, care and research initiatives,” she writes. “We also give generously to community groups, charities and organizations right across the six provinces where we operate.”

ACORN's report stresses that the digital divide is not only about “internet access but digital literacy, the skills and know-how that come with exposure to the web, which are increasingly crucial for gainful employment as well as academic success."

Some older people at the rally said they were computer illiterate – not for a lack of desire, but for a lack of access.

A fresh Statistics Canada report released Monday pegged usage by individuals in the low-income households at 62 per cent, saying “most of this lag can be accounted for by the lack of Internet use by older, low-income Canadians.”

Some smaller internet providers are addressing this generational divide. John Thibodeau, the technical director for Chebucto Community Net – the oldest running community Internet Service Provider in Nova Scotia – says his small shop has recently provided high-speed internet access for low-income seniors' manors such as the Joseph Howe on Victoria Street.

The United Nations considers internet access to be a human right, comparable with freedom of speech.

Statistics Canada reports that more than half of Internet users accessed the Internet in 2012 via a wireless handheld device such as a cell phone or tablet – though handheld access by those in the lowest income quartile was only 26 per cent.

ACORN's target, for now, is internet access through computers.

“Smart phones are so far out of my league as a low-income person ... you've got to walk before you can run,” Gering says.

The ACORN report only compiles data gathered through email. ACORN will release a final copy once they have a significant number of hard copy surveys. 

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