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161. The Digital Divide

By Andrew D. Wright

There are several Digital Divides, gaps between the access to the Internet that some people have and the lack of access available to others.

In Nova Scotia the Department of Economic and Rural Development reports that more than 6% of Nova Scotians have no physical access to broadband Internet.

There is the lack of access from poverty. Broadband prices tend to be around $50 per month. The Chebucto Community Net reports that when the price of Internet exceeds $10 per month, it becomes too expensive for some to afford.

Another Digital Divider is information. According to a user survey conducted by Chebucto Community Net, there is a direct relationship between age over 35 and lack of knowledge on how to use computers and the Internet. Half of people over 70 reported the need to know more about how to use the technology. A quarter of people 36-55 needed to know more.

Finally there is the Digital Divider of speed of access. At the time of this writing the fastest available home Internet in Halifax is 15 mb/second, which is about twice the Canadian national average speed of 7.6 mb/second.

Meanwhile in Asia, average speeds are more than quadruple the fastest local access speeds. In Japan the average Internet speed is 61 mb/second. Nova Scotia and Canada were early Internet adopters and once led the world in network access. Since then we've fallen behind.

In Finland, and as of this month Spain, it has been declared a right to have at least 1 mb/second access speed. It is felt by those governments that this issue is simply too important to leave in the hands of market forces.

Internet access brings with it unlimited educational resources, communication with the world, government services, news, entertainment, the opportunity to publicize local issues and increase the economic activity of an area.

The current government solution to provide broadband Internet access to rural Nova Scotia is by dividing the province into regions and paying commercial companies to bring wireless access to these areas. At the time of this writing the project is moving ahead but is behind schedule. This program does not address economic or knowledge barriers to access.

The other government solution is the Community Access Program, or CAP. CAP provides free public access terminals for general use. Its disadvantages are the limited number of tasks it is possible to do using the restricted software of the public computers and that CAP sites are in public buildings with limited open hours. Sessions range from half an hour to an hour and popular CAP locations may have lineups to use the computers. At the time of this writing federal funding of the CAP program is scheduled to end March 2010.

The Chebucto Community Net has been working for years to provide non-profit community-run free and affordable home access to the Internet. Unfortunately dialup access is becoming too slow to fully take advantage of some Internet resources and many lower income people do not have the required landline phone service to use it.

The real answer to the Digital Divide is to take a page from Asia and start large-scale rolling out of fibre-optic cable. Essentially strands of glass that can carry data in the form of light, fibre-optic cable is pricey to put in but very cheap to manage and operate. It can carry Internet access at a very high speed. The future is fibre to the home.

Talks are currently underway to form a consortium of providers to bring fibre-optic cable to neighbourhood pods. The idea is that no one provider would control the network but all providers could provide access from the neighbourhood pod to the home.


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Originally published 4 December 2009


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