Canada’s Wireless Digital Divide

Phone Booths

So you know the news round-ups I post here every weekday afternoon? I also gather news links for another site, OpenMedia.ca, every morning. This Vancouver-based non-profit digital rights advocacy group has successfully campaigned against usage-based-billing from ISPs, and continues the good fight against high wireless prices, secret trade deals and government spying.

There is some overlap between that site and these forums, and I sometimes miss that overlap in my daily race to get things done. Thanks to forums member HC – NO “i” for reminding me of this important story.

Dr. Michael Geist, a hero in his own right, published a piece in the Toronto Star earlier this month detailing the results of a Statscan survey on Canadian  Internet use. Of particular interest are the numbers concerning the “wireless Internet”, aka mobile data:

Internet wireless use is easily the fastest growing way for Canadians to access the Internet – 48.6 per cent of Canadians used Internet wireless services in 2012, nearly double the 2010 rate of 26.2 per cent.

Then the other shoe drops:

While 67.8 per cent of all Canadians in the top income quartile have used Internet wireless services, only 26.4 per cent of the bottom income quartile have done so.

And it gets worse:

The 16 to 24 demographic are the heaviest users of wireless Internet services, but the gap between the rich and poor remains: 88.3 per cent of the top quartile use wireless Internet services, but that declines to 26.4 per cent for the poorest quartile.

In other words, almost three-quarters of Canada’s poorest Canadians — even the so-called digital natives — have never used mobile data because they cannot afford to.

Some might call it a luxury; I would argue that mobile data is an essential service, as important as broadband Internet in the home. There are probably better examples out there, but I can think of a couple of real-world cases based on my own observations where not having mobile data puts people at a very real disadvantage:

1. As the weather gets colder I see more people freezing their butts off at bus and streetcar stops in and around downtown Toronto. Mobile data would let them access a NextBus-powered app or site and know when their ride was coming, so they could wait somewhere warm in the meantime.

2. I know a couple of people with iPhones but no data plan. Their constant  search for an open WiFi network leaves them vulnerable to DroidSheep, WiFi Pineapples and other security concerns.

It doesn’t help that shiny new hardware is sold with heavy subsidies by carriers to put people further in debt, often with mandatory data plans that some users can’t afford to use.

And did you know that Bell no longer accepts in-store cash payments? A friend of a friend has no credit card, and has been forced to pay his monthly phone bill at Money Mart. A couple of months ago a payment wasn’t  processed properly, and now this poor guy has collections after him for no good reason.

In drafting up this post I feel especially privileged to have not only a data plan but a mobile hotspot (or two) as well. But it’s not just First World Problems when I complain about the high cost of mobile service in this country; where SMS might be king in Africa, our mobile infrastructure is built upon data. And these amazing mobile computers that we carry around in our pockets are largely useless if we can’t afford to have them connected.