Here’s something that might be worth emulating by Canadian ISPs.
U.S. cable company and ISP Comcast recently launched Internet Essentials, a program that provides Internet access to low-income households for $9.95 (USD), plus taxes, per month. Upon joining the program, a family will be able to purchase a computer for $149.99. Low-income families that qualify will surely benefit from this service – but the facts behind the program raise questions about the digital divide and the right to digital literacy.
Private companies are not normally expected to be altruistic, and in this particular situation altruism has been thrust upon Comcast. When Comcast acquired media company NBC-Universal, one condition of the deal was that Comcast provide broadband access to low-income households without forcing them to subscribe to a cable package.
As I was reading Comcast’s eligibility criteria for Internet Essentials, I was particularly struck by the following criterion: No household owing monies or equipment to Comcast is eligible. Comcast is leveraging this great program to collect monies on the delinquent accounts of some low-income families. Low-income families’ indebtedness might be due in part to the high cable and broadband prices they previously faced.
They had to stretch themselves beyond their financial limits in order to gain access to these technologies, which is quickly becoming essential for equitable access to information about their governments and current events. It seems unfair to tie the use of such a service to this condition, or to punish a child for the indebtedness of his/her parents.
However, many libraries and schools give patrons and students time-limited yet free access to computers connected to the Internet. As government services and documents are replicated or transferred online, the digital divide between rich and poor becomes an inequity in people’s access to, and ability to participate in, government. The same is true for other sectors, such as education, commerce, entertainment, retail and banking.
Further, while this recent market initiative in the U.S. is a step in the right direction, it is unclear whether it alone is sufficient to ensure that everyone can take advantage of their right to Internet access.
All of this raises the following questions: does society have a positive obligation to provide Internet access to people who cannot purchase it on the market? If they do, should there be restrictions on who has Internet access and on the means of getting such access?
The U.S. government seems to think so, but it cannot bear the costs and challenges of taking on such a task themselves. It is leaning on businesses to provide broadband access. I have yet to see such steps from Canada’s government.
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