Hundreds of thousands of seniors and low-income families will soon enjoy high-speed Internet access for $20 a month through a partnership between the federal government and more than a dozen Internet service providers, CBC News has learned.
Families receiving the maximum Canada Child Benefit (CCB) and seniors receiving the maximum Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) will be eligible for internet with speeds of up to 50 megabits per second (Mbps) and 10 Mbps download, or the fastest available speed in their region.
An announcement is expected on Monday, a government source said.
Fourteen Internet service providers, including Bell, Rogers and Telus, are contributing to the initiative.
The decision, which is part of the government’s efforts Connecting Families Initiative, branded Connecting Families 2.0. It both enhances and expands what the government previously offered with Connecting Families 1.0. Under the plan, announced in 2017, families receiving ACE could get internet access for $10 a month.
Data allocation will also increase to 200 gigabytes per month under version 2.0.
The $10 per month plan will still be available for those who want it.
Data from the Canada Revenue Agency and Employment and Social Development Canada suggest that more than 800,000 households receiving the CCB and hundreds of thousands more receiving the GIS could qualify. Eligible households will receive a letter from the government containing an access code that can be used to register through a secure portal.
The government has set a goal connect 98% of Canadians to high-speed Internet by 2026 and 100% by 2030.
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Internet access at home changed Ray Noyes’ life.
The 66-year-old Ottawa man is a member of ACORN, a group that advocates for low- and middle-income people, and he had no internet during the first year of the pandemic – a time when voices on his television or the radio would emphasize the importance of access.
“I was constantly hearing how important it is during the pandemic not to be isolated,” he said.
“I was told again and again how important it was to have the internet to avoid social isolation, which is considered very bad, and I found it very frustrating.”
Noyes was eventually able to get home internet access through Rogers’ Connected for Success program. He said it helped him a lot, especially with his bipolar disorder and depression.
“It was a big difference, and it did my mood a lot of good,” he said.
While Noyes welcomes Connecting Families 2.0, he said he’s worried the program won’t cover all seniors and low-income families — and those it already covers under the $10 program per month might not be able to afford the increased cost for faster internet.
“We’re concerned that families who are already in the program will be grandfathered in and get that higher speed,” he said.
Marion Pollack, chair of the board of directors of Vancouver’s 411 Seniors Center Society, said she shared his concerns.
Although she said the enhanced program is a “very important first step”, she wants it to be extended to all low-income seniors, not just those receiving the maximum amount of GIS.
“It’s a small minority of low-income seniors,” Pollack said.
“As this is only limited to seniors receiving the maximum GIS, we are keeping a whole bunch of other seniors on the wrong side of the digital divide.”
Pollack said internet access is key to getting information about COVID-19 vaccines for seniors, allowing them to fill out government forms digitally and making it easier for them to stay in touch with family and friends.
But she also wants to see government programs train seniors in internet skills, including how to protect themselves from online scams, and provide refurbished or new tablets and computers to low-income seniors.
Pollack said his center realized how critical having internet access and digital skills was when British Columbia introduced its vaccine passport program.
“We used to help the elderly people fill in the vaccination passport every day,” she said.
Annie Kidder, executive director of Toronto-based public education advocacy group People For Education, also welcomed the news.
She said online learning during the pandemic has shown that internet speed and quality is a matter of fairness.
“If you had two kids at home learning online or interacting with teachers online, if you had slow, glitched internet, that was a huge problem,” Kidder said.
“It means that in a classroom, there’s not that sense of division between who has the best equipment or the fastest internet or the easiest access, and who doesn’t.”
But Noyes said he’s not sure the government is on track to meet its goal of bringing all Canadians online by the end of the decade.
“It may not be enough, fast enough,” he said.