Imagine COVID-19 with crappy internet. For 2 out of 5 people in Toronto, it’s a stark reality

·3 min read

As Canada works to bridge the digital gap across all of its 10 million square kilometres, a new report shows that even in urban centres like Toronto, a good chunk of people are still dealing with slow internet or none at all.

Here’s how the numbers — and the rippling effects — break down.

Two in five households have internet speed below CRTC targets

Thirty-eight per cent of Toronto households don’t have internet that is up to speed with Canada’s 50 megabits per second (mbps) download target, according to a new report from Ryerson University’s Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship called Mapping Toronto’s Digital Divide.

At a time when health communications are quickly pinging around the web, and school and work have been forced online, no access or poor access to the internet can have bigger consequences.

Three in five of those with no internet say it impacted their access to critical services

Two per cent of respondents said they don’t have access to home internet at all, and of that, 61 per cent said it has affected their ability to access critical services.

What’s that mean? Among other things: COVID-19 public health announcements, information about business closures, how to access CERB and taking part in education programs for remote learning.

“Many services from reserving skating times, to booking a COVID test to applying for income support have shifted to online first,” said Nisa Malli, a co-author of the report and a manager at the Brookfield Institute.

Although online isn’t the only option, given measures to combat COVID-19, people could be putting themselves more at risk without access to virtual options, or delaying their education.

“For those who don’t have internet access at home, it means they’re more likely to have to put themselves at risk of being in person or experience longer wait times as they’re calling in.”

The biggest problem? Cost

Most respondents without internet say the cost or lack of a device to use it on are the reason.

Regardless of income, most Toronto households pay between $36 and $100 per month for home internet services.

While there are two programs in the city that offer low-income families internet for $10 a month, only one per cent of respondents report paying $10 or less. Critics have pointed out that the $10 program can be slow and inaccessible to all low-income Canadians.

Who worries more about paying internet bills?

Two of the major barriers to accessing home internet are the cost of the service or access to a device. And cost worries are divided across income and race.

More than a third of people are worried about paying their internet bill over the next few months, with low-income, newcomer, single parent, Latin American, South Asian, Black and Southeast Asian residents worrying the most.

Places people have got online outside of home

The report showed that the majority — 42 per cent — of respondents without internet at home relied on the public library for use and, overall, 16 per cent used libraries to get online. Malli said that these sorts of spaces can’t be forgotten about as we respond to the pandemic.

“That speaks to the enormous value that free or low-cost drop-in accessible public internet and computers have, and the necessity in the context of the pandemic and making sure that those kinds of spaces are still available and open and as safe as they can be.

“I think that access is really complicated. And we need a range of services and programs,” Malli said, including accessible broadband, portable options and clinics teaching digital literacy.

Angelyn Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Danica Samuel, Toronto Star, Toronto Star