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Want to Increase Internet Access? Treat It as a Social Issue

The City of Montreal is taking a unique approach to bridging its digital divide

A view from the top of Mont Royale in Montreal

Published on October 04, 2021

Has internet access been a problem for you during the pandemic?

As work, school and even our social lives moved online, many residents across Canada found themselves part of what’s known as “the digital divide” — households that don’t have access to affordable, reliable internet. 

It’s an issue that’s often talked about in rural areas, where less internet infrastructure leads to worse connectivity. But many cities also have areas with poor internet access, and residents who can’t afford the plans and devices they need to connect. 

Cities are beginning to understand that expanding internet infrastructure is one part of the solution.  Ahead of the final month of Future Cities Canada: The Summit,  we spoke with panelists and City of Montreal policy specialists Laurie Savard and Alvar Herrera about their city’s approach to treating internet access as a social issue.  

Savard and Herrera will be joined by Todd Hofley, Director, Property Relations, Beanfield, Alejandro Gonzalez Rendon, Co-chair, Downtown ACORN, and Sam Andrey, Director of Policy and Research, Ryerson Leadership Lab, to discuss the digital divide, the threat it presents to inclusive city building, and how providers like Beanfield are stepping up to fill the gap. 

Why Does the Divide Exist? 

While some cities define the digital divide as simply access to an internet connection, Savard says it’s a three-fold problem. 

“There is actual access to the internet — some places on the island of Montreal are not connected at all, and some zones have poor connection,” she shares. “Then there’s digital literacy — do you know how to access information and services using the internet? Finally, there’s access to an actual computer or other internet-connected device.” 

That makes the problem bigger than simply expanding the city’s internet infrastructure, although that’s an important part of the solution.  

“When we think of a street, everyone would agree that it’s a city’s responsibility to maintain it,” says Herrera. “Yet when it comes to internet access, the private sector is often in control of who can and can’t access it.” 

COVID Highlights the Problem 

Montreal’s connectivity issues existed well before the pandemic. But when stay-at-home orders came into effect, the problem came into stark relief. 

“We have data on the fact that during COVID the problem has gotten worse,” says Savard. “There were people who were choosing between buying food and keeping their internet connection, because the internet was the only way they could make a living, contact their family, access services, or keep their kids in school.” 

Savard believes the shift to remote work and digital day-to-day services is here to stay. “During COVID, so many things that were analog have shifted to digital. That’s not going to change moving forward,” she says.  

A Social Issue First 

So how should cities approach a multi-prong problem like the digital divide? 

“First and foremost, we have to acknowledge where we are, and not where we’d like to be,” says Herrera. “You need to measure what you want to change. Before COVID, we had surveys about the digital divide at a provincial level. Now, we’re surveying at the city-level.” 

As that information is gathered, the city is also taking a unique approach to the issue — treating it as a social issue first, not just a technical one. 

“It’s not the IT department that’s responsible for it, we created a multi-departmental task force during the pandemic, because this impacts almost every city service,” says Savard.  

During the pandemic, the city set up what it calls “WiFi Spots” — public stations in the city where people could go to access free municipal WiFi and sometimes computers and services, even while other services like libraries were closed. 

Savard says they want to build on solutions like that one, which address access to devices and literacy, not just connectivity. 

“We’re not treating this as a pandemic problem, we’re addressing it now, for the future,” she shares. “In the next year, we’ll be releasing a full action plan to address the digital divide over the five years. It will include partnering with NGOs, community organizations, and hopefully some other big partners.” 

Hear More at Future Cities Canada: The Summit  

Hear more at Bridging the Digital Divide: Addressing Connectivity Gaps in Toronto and Montreal at Future Cities Canada: The Summit, on September 13 at 11:00 am EST. This session is supported by Beanfield. Register today!