Local organizations proposing project to bridge digital divide brought on by COVID

Recent reports find the digital divide is a socioeconomic and rural issue

The digital divide has always existed, but it was the spread of the novel coronavirus that brought the issue to the forefront.

The gap between those who have access to the internet and those who don’t has usually concluded with conversations on connectivity in urban areas compared to rural communities.

But a recent list of studies from the National Capital FreeNet (NCF), a not-for-profit internet service provider, and Social Planning Council (SPC) of Ottawa show the picture, at least in Canada’s capital city, is different.

Connectivity challenges also exist in urban areas and are largely tied to women, low-income communities, those living with a disability, or residents who are Black, Indigenous, or people of colour.

These studies focus on how digital equity can be increased in Ottawa to ensure everyone can have access to the internet.

Challenges in urban connectivity

When the pandemic hit, libraries, coffee shops, and government buildings, places where free Wi-Fi is available, were forced to close down. Those who relied on these places to access the internet, largely people from low-income backgrounds, were left behind.

The shutdown highlighted a number of challenges.

The first was a lack of access to devices. Connecting to the internet is impossible without a compatible device. Research shows seniors and low-income residents are most likely to not have access to an appropriate device. While this issue existed prior to the pandemic, it wasn’t given its due importance given access could be sought in public places, such as libraries.

Supplies were also often available through organizations refurbishing donated devices. This was largely impacted as people started to work from home and the demand grew. Social distancing also made it difficult for staff to continue working on any refurbishment projects. While numerous organizations donated devices, gaps still existed.

The second challenge was a lack of digital literacy. This focuses on knowledge specific to devices, software and the internet.

The third challenge was to improve the digital capacity of volunteers organizations. Non-profit programs are important for dealing with inequities, but connectivity brings challenges of its own. The findings note many organizations faced challenges shifting their operations online during COVID.

The fourth challenge was the divide that exists in urban communities, as many living in the city don’t have adequate access to the internet. The report highlights affordability as an issue in Ottawa, leading many to make tradeoffs.

“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,” Dianne Urquhart, executive director of SPC Ottawa, said in a statement.

The report provides a number of recommendations to solve these challenges. For the lack of access to devices, programs focusing on lending devices should be expanded to allow more people to have access. Community members can also be thought how to refurbish donated computers to increase supply. To increase digital literacy, learning opportunities can be shared with community members and more programs can be offered. Improving affordability will further help the volunteer sector get access to programs giving them more access. This will also help bridge the urban divide.

A community mesh network

NCF has been examining ways it can provide faster internet access at a lower cost for those that need it in the Ottawa area.

It has come up with the proposal of piloting a community mesh network. This is a wireless network where infrastructure devices, known as nodes, connect with other nodes to transmit data.

This project would be completed in partnership with Ottawa Community Housing. Broadband solutions will be offered to tenants and pricing is currently being examined. Public Wi-Fi access will also be available free in community spaces.

The organization is currently looking to fund this project and a starting date is not available at this time.

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