The digital divide: a policy proposal

Suddenly everyone is working and learning from home. Or not. Its creating a larger digital divide than we’ve ever seen.

Not all jobs can be done remotely. But for those that can, we have a sudden scramble to make sure everyone is adequately connected, driven by the corporate IT and home workers themself.

But learning can be done remotely. And it shows a bigger digital divide. Schools that don’t have deployed systems. Students that don’t have devices or connectivity. In other days we would have sent them to the library, now closed.

Some schools scramble and pick corporate tools like Zoom. But Zoom has a strange relationship with privacy and Facebook, you might not want to have an administrator accept data collection on behalf of those students. G Suite and chromebooks are the king. But managing all those students remotely is surely challenging.

Getting to connectivity, and the proposal. You see, most people have Internet at home. But most is not all. People have no (or insufficient) Internet for 3 basic reasons:

  • Don’t want it
  • Can’t get it
  • Can’t afford it

Now, its hard to solve #1. You can educate, create incentives (e.g. making it obvious that online works better for some things), but there’s only so much you can do.

But, on #2 and #3, we can do things with public policy. A few years ago the company I was with donated some mobile hotspots to a library, and I was surprised at how oversubscribed the service was. The appetite is there.

So what sort of public policy could we do? I’m a huge fan of the invisible hand: make the economics make sense, and the decisions follow.

About a year ago there was a battle over the regulated rate that telco’s charged each other. You maybe have seen the CRTC, TekSavvy, Bell talked about. A CRTC ruling lowered the rates, TekSavvy celebrated. Bell sued, the Federal Court of appeals stayed the decision. The net result is that shortly the users on those services will have their price go up.

I’m sure a bunch of people are about to go argue with the federal court on some emergency measure here. But what if we didn’t? What if instead we allowed that ruling to stay in place, but, on the proviso that 100% of the money collected was used to fund near-free fixed plans and mobile hot spots for eligible folks? How would you police that? Well, you could assess the number of subsidised connections made available by the incumbent vs the number of eligible people. Hit 100%? Get 100% of the cash. Hit 0%? Get none, pay some additional tax. Make it a carrot and a stick.

So rather than re-visit this decision about whether TekSavvy owes the incumbents more, and that you should pay, we accept it, but only allow the incumbents to collect it if they figure out how to market and deliver the some baseline service to the people needing it. That is why i suggested the downside (an additional tax) if they don’t hit the market penetration.

What do you think? We need those students to be able to learn online. We can’t fix people not wanting Internet, I can’t fix people who can’t work at home due to their job, but it seems we can fix the ‘can’t afford’ and ‘can’t find’ problem.






5 Responses to “The digital divide: a policy proposal”

  1. Mike

    I feel this divide needs to be solved sooner rather than later. The schools have been slow to respond with at home learning, likely due to equality issues (kids not having internet/computer). How can they proceed with a rollout of home based learning when this gap exists?

  2. Zac

    Districts should own the internet infrastructure in their region, paid for via property taxes. Anyone who needs it should just use it; if it’s oversubscribed then supply more. Treat it like roads.

    Alternatively make it a utility that gets hooked up and accessible from all homes whether they use it or not, and they just pay for what they use. Treat it like water. If you really don’t want to use it at your home (or don’t have a home), you know it’s available at public buildings in parks, or even from wi/ater fi/ountain hot spots on the street. But if you have a home that’s not hooked up then you’re not up to code.

    Which way you approach it depends on whether you see it as a neighbourhood- or household-level essential, and how readily you want people to be able to access it for “free”. But I think expecting for-profit companies to supply it to people who have no money is wishful thinking.

  3. Samir

    Among all the “can’t/”don’t/won’t” and on going slow down with everything, The pandemic also showed us one thing for sure and nothing new with this since it’s ever known tragedy: Lack of Perception/Drive/motivation
    This is the time I feel, if a person is not Motivated/Driven, “can’t/don’t/won’t” can’t/don’t/won’t become “can/do/will”.

  4. Jayme Snyder

    @Zac, at one time, small service providers couldn’t overlash fibre on the poles or really even lay their own due to so much red tape.
    KW region’s hydro utility built out a large profitable monopoly on tax grants. It was called Atria. Where is Atria today and why?
    What about Blink? What about Mobilicity? That’s all three problems at once…

  5. Zac

    Atria? You mean the one they cashed out on by selling to private equity, who (of course) promised to keep up the public work and then (of course) sold out to Rogers who (of course) broke all those promises? I think you just agreed with me. If the ownership had been or stayed municipal, it would still be supplying local value to the poor.

    Counterpoint: Good old is still a thing, and still seems to be operated exclusively in the public interest. WREPnet budget was about $750k in 2018, according to the region web site. Wikipedia says Waterloo region population in 2018 was probably about 600k people. So it cost an average of $1.25 per person in the region for the entire year. Try quadrupling or 10x its funding and see what happens. You could start to address points Don’s points 2 and 3 above. It’s not like the region can’t afford it. Waterloo region district school board budget for 2019-2020 was $775 *million*. Property tax levies for 2020 are set to be about $570M. Planned upgrades for WREPnet is going to be $163k in 2020, which includes $63k they didn’t manage to use last year. For future years they’re only budgeting $50k per year. Your region is going to choke out its best opportunity to provide internet to the disenfranchised because it doesn’t want to make people pay more than a single dime in property taxes.

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