Between the hours of about 4 p.m. to midnight, Ashleigh Weeden goes dark. Not for the usual reasons, though. In Weeden’s southwestern Ontario town, the internet connection becomesfor all practical purposesnonexistent during those hours. The PhD student at the University of Guelph lives in Ariss, Ontario, a “dispersed rural community” sandwiched between urban centres like Guelph and Kitchener. Despite paying about $250 monthly for internet access, she finds herself shut out of the internet. “…[S]ometimes [internet speed] goes one, maybe half a megabyte down,” she says. “I can’t grade, I can’t do anything, there’s no point, I might as well give up until about midnight.”

Government of Canada Budget 2019

Weeden’s experience reflects a reality for communities spread across Canada, also known as the “digital divide.” This is, according to the Oxford dictionary, “the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the internet, and those who do not.”

“Despite these investments, there remains a substantial difference in broadband service availability between urban areas, on the one hand, and rural and remote areas, on the other. By preventing Canadians in rural and remote areas from participating in the digital economy, this ‘digital divide’ exacerbates the challenges they already face.” – Report of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, “Broadband Connectivity in Rural Canada: Overcoming the Digital Divide”

Preventing Canadians from participating in the digital economy, especially those in rural and remote locations, “exacerbates the challenges they already face,” according to the report “Broadband Connectivity in Rural Canada: Overcoming the Digital Divide” by the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology.

“There remain gaps in digital literacy competencies and digital access across the country,” Nisa Malli a senior policy analyst for the Brookfield Institute at Ryerson University says.

Malli, along with Annalise Huynh, wrote Levelling Up, a report that assesses the state of Canada’s digital literacy, which they define as the ability to use technical tools to solve problems.

Levelling Up found that, “Infrastructure gaps in rural, remote, and Indigenous communities, along with financial access barriers among low-income people living in Canada across the country, are contributing to this challenge.” According to the study, these factors further marginalize those who are already face challenges.

Research shows that gaps are particularly prominent between urban and rural communities. According to Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA)’s Internet Factbook 2018, rural communities have an average download speed of 11.15 Mbps and upload speeds of 5.45 Mbps compared to urban communities with download speeds of 22.92 Mbps and upload speeds of 12.4 Mbps.

CIRA, which is a not-for-profit member-based organization that focuses on developing and implementing internet-based policies, found that “rural communities are about 25% slower than urban ones.

However, it is noted that, “CIRA’s test relies on a crowd-funded model. Rural homes that don’t have internet access obviously cannot run an online Internet performance test.” The fact that most surveys documenting the state of internet access for Canadians are done online is a common problem when collecting data on rural and remote communities.

Colette Brin, a professor of information and communication at Laval University, conducted a study assessing news users as part of the Digital News Report Canada (2016-2018). But she recognizes a challenge in the research process. According to Brin, about 10 percent of Canada’s population is without regular internet access. These people, she confirms, were not consulted in her survey.

To discuss populations without internet, Brin says we would have to go outside of her study. “That’s actually a blind spot of the study because we do only talk to people who are online,” she says, adding that in order to get this information it would require a very qualitative, ethnographic, long-term approach. “Which a lot of scholars are just not trained to do or it’s not something necessarily rewarded also in the academic world we are pressured to produce, produce, produce and publish, publish.”

The 2016 CIRA study found that 13 percent of households across Canada do not have internet access altogether.

“There are significant gaps in broadband access, in terms of basic access and speed,” Malli says. This reality deepens Canada’s digital divide.

The Industry

Over the last decade and a half, the journalism industry has struggled in its response to the forces of digital disruption, both in maintaining its readership base and also in finding ways to make money with new advertising models. The Shattered Mirror Report by The Public Policy Forum assessed how news can survive the digital world and found that, “Established news organizations have been left gasping, while native digital alternatives have failed to develop journalistic mass, especially in local news.”

According to the Local News Research Project, since 2008, 269 local news outlets have shuttered in Canada, with 194 communities affected by an outlet closing. Meanwhile, the industry itself has lost one-third of its journalists between 2011 and 2017 alone.

“The financial constraints on media organizations have had a negative impact on working conditions for journalists, quite apart from the heavier demands for increased speed and output,” writes The Economist’s Madelaine Drohan in a Public Policy Forum titled “Does serious journalism have a future in Canada?” Drohan says that with fewer resources, publications have had to drastically cut their staff and put holds on digital innovation. What’s left? “The inevitable result is poorer journalism, fewer voices contributing to the public debate and a loss of loyal readers, viewers and listeners.”

Publications are in a state of panic, seeking new avenues and audiences by developing online sites, or shifting their entire existing publication to online. The incorporation of paywalls have been a desperate attempt by publications to stay afloat. For example, in 2015, the Toronto Star announced the end of its paid digital subscription program “Digital Access,” only to bring paywalls back in 2018.

With the increase of subscriber-only digital models, the pool of Canadians unable to access news regularly and affordably, is growing. The question becomes: who is being left behind?

Take a glimpse into Canadian communities

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