New reports show COVID-19 has increased digital divide, community ready to fill the gap

OTTAWA, ON — Monday, December 13, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic increased the digital divide at the same time that online access became crucial to surviving lockdowns, say two local organizations working on digital equity.

These findings came from three recent reports produced by Digital Equity Ottawa, a new group founded by National Capital FreeNet (NCF) and the Social Planning Council of Ottawa. The reports cover digital equity in urban Ottawa, rural Ottawa and the surrounding counties, as well as an examination of community-driven WiFi mesh networks as one potential solution.

Supported by the United Way East Ontario, the reports include input from schools to libraries to community health centres and a survey of hundreds of Ottawa Community Housing tenants. The Ottawa-based Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) contributed real-world internet speed test data generated by their Internet Performance Test platform to heatmap gaps in regional connectivity.

“During the lockdowns, people needed to access school, work, medical appointments, social services, and to stay in touch with friends and family online. If they didn’t have affordable home internet, a connected device like a tablet, or the digital skills to use these tools, they were left out,” says Dianne Urquhart, Executive Director of the Social Planning Council of Ottawa. “Our findings show that.”

For its part, NCF would like to pilot a community WiFi mesh network for affordable home internet and free public WiFi, which has successful models in New York, Germany and Spain, as well as some Indigenous communities.

“When home internet is expensive enough that people either go without or pay for it by making trade-offs with their food budgets, the current system is broken. We’re looking for alternatives,” said Andrew Martey Asare, Business and Community Development Manager at National Capital FreeNet.

This could include working with existing community infrastructure, like Ottawa Community Housing tower blocks hosting WiFi antennas, or other city-owned assets. The City of Toronto announced this year that it would examine leveraging its infrastructure to help connect under-represented communities.

CIRA, best known for managing the .CA domain name registry on behalf of all Canadians, agrees that more work is needed.

"Our data shows that Canada's digital divide is not just an urban versus rural issue: it's also a socioeconomic one,” said Tanya O’Callaghan, vice president of community investment, policy and advocacy at CIRA.

“If you look at the map, you see slow internet speeds right in the heart of the nation’s capital. Low-income residents don’t deserve low-quality internet. CIRA encourages the City of Ottawa and anyone offering internet services locally to take a close look at this report and see what they can do to help address these digital equity gaps as soon as possible."

To read the reports: www.ncf.ca/advocacy

Digital Equity in urban Ottawa

Digital Equity in rural Ottawa and Eastern Ottawa

Community Mesh WiFi Networks

For more information about Digital Equity Ottawa: https://neighbourhoodequity.ca/digital-equity-ottawa/

Media contacts:

Andrew Martey Asare, National Capital FreeNet: 613-721-1773 ext. 1081 amarteyasare@ncf.ca

Dianne Urquhart, Social Planning Council of Ottawa: 613-282-8922 dianneu@spcottawa.on.ca