Fight for affordable internet to take centre stage at CRTC hearing today

Update: see previous post – February 25, 2016 Canada: Cable firms slow to share details about ‘skinny’ basic package and pick-and-pay TV

Alejandra Ruiz with the anti-poverty group ACORN says access to high-speed internet is a human right.

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Advocacy groups ready to lobby for cheaper internet at CRTC public hearing

Heidi Gatto browses a newspaper’s job ads. The classifieds were once the go-to section for people like her looking for work.

Not anymore. She counts just five advertised jobs, a sign of our digital times.

“All the job postings, all the important things we do is online,” says Gatto, a single mother living on social assistance in Toronto.

The problem for Gatto — she can’t afford home internet service.

Students require the internet to do their homework online.

And she’s not the only one in her family who suffers. Whenever Gatto’s 11-year-old son, Justin needs to do research for his school work, he must take the bus to his grandmother’s house where he can get online.

Gatto feels left out, not having access to a service she believes is now a necessity. “We all need it or we’re lost,” she says.

A large number of employers only accept online job applications, which forces applicants to go online to apply for a job.

National anti-poverty group, ACORN agrees. So it’s lobbying Canada’s telecommunications regulator, the CRTC to mandate that telecoms offer a subsidized $10-a-month high-speed internet option for low-income Canadians.

“It’s not a luxury anymore,” says ACORN spokeswoman Alejandra Ruiz. “It’s a human right.”

The organization will make its case during CRTC public hearings that start today in Gatineau, Que. The three-week event is part of a review looking at access to basic telecommunications services.

Affordable internet is certain to become a hot topic during the hearing.

Paying the price to connect

According to a new CRTC survey, only one to two per cent of respondents had no home internet service.

But many people who are connected still struggle with the cost.

The CRTC’s open survey of 29,000 Canadians found that 75 per cent said they were dissatisfied with the price of their home internet service.

More than half also reported they limited their access over the past year with one of the main reasons being cost.

The survey was conducted between Jan. 14 and Feb. 29 by polling firm EKOS.

ACORN says many of its low-income members who have high-speed internet pay for it by cutting back on other necessities, like groceries.

Amber Slegtenhorst from Ottawa says that’s her story.

“It’s difficult,” she admits to cover her $60 monthly bill for home phone and internet. But the single mother of five children says her family needs online access.

“It’s your connection to the world now,” says Slegtenhorst who works as a restaurant manager.

Many potential employers expect job applicants to send their resumes/CV’s to them online.

Son’s medical records online

Her two eldest children need internet for school work and Slegtenhorst requires it for everything from banking to accessing her 4-year-old son’s medical records. He has a severe medical condition and the hospital now makes everything available online.

“I need to have access to that information. That’s vital for him,” she says.

But there have been a couple of hiccups. Since she signed up 1.5 years ago, Slegtenhorst has lost her online access twice for about a month each time. That’s because she ran out of cash to pay her bill.

“It was rough,” she says.

Many employers send out employees’ T4’s online.

Are Canadians getting a bad deal?

Internet advocacy group Open Media will also testify at the CRTC hearings and plans to make affordability one if its top issues.

“When it comes to internet services, Canadians are really getting a bad deal,” argues Josh Tabish, the organization’s campaigns coordinator.

He points to a 2015 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development study showing, out of 34 countries, Canada had the 5th-highest entry level prices for fixed broadband internet subscriptions.

Tabish worries if internet providers are forced to subsidize the service for low-income Canadians, companies will make up the difference by raising prices for everyone else.

He argues the ultimate solution is to foster more competition which would drive down prices for high speed access for everybody.

“Until federal decision makers create more choice,” says Tabish, “Canadians can expect to continue paying some of the highest prices in the world.”

Rogers offers occasional internet to customers for $25 a month and an $8 modem rental a month ($447.48 a year – includes a 13% tax). They also offer a rate of $9.99 a month ($119.88 excluding taxes) if you reside in Ontario/New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador community housing. If not, you aren’t eligible for the $9.99 special.

A Rogers plan

Internet provider Rogers points out it offers service for as low as $25 a month. “We think that’s pretty reasonable,” says spokesperson Aaron Lazarus.

Rogers advertises its $25 deal as suitable for one person for “occasional, basic internet service.” The $8 modem rental is extra.

And for those who can’t afford it, the company has created a program where community housing residents living in Rogers service areas in Ontario, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador can apply for subsidized internet service for $9.99 a month.

The telecom says the project has the potential to provide subsidized service for up to 150,000 residents.

“We wanted to do this as our part,” says Lazarus.

ACORN applauds the project and Rogers challenges other providers to set up similar programs. But the company doesn’t believe telecoms should be forced to offer blanket subsidies to low-income Canadians.

“We think a competitive market is the best way to go,” says Lazarus.

Because Rogers just added the Ottawa arm of the program, Slegtenhorst doesn’t know yet if it would work for her.

Unfortunately, Gatto doesn’t live in Toronto community housing, which means she can’t apply.

So she’s hoping the CRTC will mandate a fixed price that she can afford, allowing her to get connected.

“It’s essential for everybody,” she says.

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