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Advocates urge city of Hamilton to make internet affordable for low-income residents

Hamilton housing advocates say the city should be doing more to help low-income residents who can't necessarily afford internet at home. Lisa Polewski / 900 CHML

Housing advocates in Hamilton say the city needs to do more to address the “digital divide” and help low-income residents who can’t afford internet access at home.

ACORN Hamilton is calling on the city to implement its own municipally owned broadband service, saying the federal government’s program to provide Canadians with affordable internet doesn’t cover everyone who needs it.

The group conducted a survey between October and March and heard from nearly 200 Hamiltonians about their experiences with accessing the internet.

Of those, 95 per cent said that home internet is too expensive and 11 per cent said they didn’t have home internet, with more than half of those saying that was due to the cost.

One-third said they’d had to sacrifice buying things like gas, rent, food, medication, transportation, and clothing to pay for internet.

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Dana Sparks, chair of the east end chapter of ACORN, said the federal government’s “Connecting Families Program” doesn’t go far enough toward making the internet affordable for all Canadians — and that includes this week’s announcement regarding the program entering its second phase.

“It’s been four years since the Connecting Families program started, and it leaves out most low-income Canadians,” Sparks said.

“Low-income Hamilton residents can’t wait any longer.”

ACORN member Anica Rak said cities like Toronto and Calgary have their own initiatives to improve internet access, like Toronto’s ConnectTO program and Calgary’s municipal broadband network.

She points out that the city did have a public Wi-Fi program downtown between 2008 and 2013, but it was scrapped at a one-time cost of $30,000 due to quality issues.

“The city reported listed complaints from the public that the service was not meeting Hamilton residents’ needs and that the infrastructure was outdated and needed to be refreshed. Rather than implementing suggestions from its residents, the city decided to shut down the program entirely.”

At the time, it was costing the city $90,000 per year and city councillors heard that it would cost much more than that to upgrade the infrastructure to make it more reliable.

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Read more: Riders can now get free Wi-Fi on some HSR buses

The group is also calling for Wi-Fi to be accessible on all Hamilton Street Railway (HSR) buses to improve access for residents, citing a 2018 pilot project that added Wi-Fi to buses on 15 routes with the help of funding from the federal government’s Public Transit Infrastructure Fund.

Sylvia Peña, the HSR’s communications officer, said that pilot came to an end in March 2020, with no plans to continue or expand the service.

She said the pilot demonstrated that, while free Wi-Fi is highly valued by existing customers, it likely wouldn’t lead to significant increases in ridership and is less of an issue for passengers than other service fundamentals like reliability, frequency, and cleanliness of buses.

“The operating costs to offer free public Wi-Fi on buses, as configured during the pilot, would be significant — particularly if expanded to the entire HSR fleet of buses,” she added. “Mobile wireless data usage rates are very high in Ontario compared to land-based rates.”

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ACORN Hamilton is also calling on the city to increase the number of parks in which free Wi-Fi is available, particularly in communities where low-income residents live.

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Right now, three of the city’s parks have Wi-Fi — Gage, Waterdown Memorial and William Connell — and the city said more parks will be added through the pilot project before the end of the year.

“The city will monitor uptake and interest in the free Wi-Fi pilot and consider expanding to additional public places in the future,” reads a release from the city.

Sparks said it’s great to see Hamilton moving toward making the internet more accessible in public spaces, but said that’s not the best solution.

“No one’s first choice would be a park or a library to join a virtual doctor’s appointment or have to travel to a library every day to apply for jobs,” she said.

“The most important and needed place for internet access is in the home.”

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