Internet literacy in Canada: the missing policy (cont’d)

(This post is the second half of the Comment piece for Telemanagement, revised and updated where appropriate.)

We don’t need no broadband, thanks

Earlier this year, the NTIA, part of the U.S. Dept of Commerce, issued a paper entitled Digital Nation, devoted to the Obama administration’s goal of providing fast, affordable broadband to all Americans. The work, covering the responses of 129,000 individuals, was undertaken in conjunction with the U.S. Census Bureau. The authors describe the paper as beginning “the process of developing a factual basis for sound policymaking to expand the adoption of and access to Internet technology, particularly broadband” (p.15).

The paper wastes no time in getting down to the barriers that worry US policymakers:

“Despite the growing importance of the Internet in American life, over 30 percent of households and 35 percent of persons do not use the Internet at home, and 30 percent of all persons do not use the Internet anywhere. Those with no broadband access at home amount to more than 35 percent of all households and approximately 40 percent of all persons, with a larger proportion in rural areas in both categories.”

As indicated in the accompanying chart, the value proposition implied in “don’t need” is generally more important than the affordability factor (“too expensive”). On the other hand, some of the other responses, such as lack of skill and no computer, are in many cases part of the same overall problem reflected in “don’t need” – low levels of digital or Internet literacy and the resulting reluctance to adopt broadband.

What about Canada?

If the CRTC needs data supporting the allegation that policymakers should concentrate on adoption and usage, they could also try Statistics Canada, which runs the Canadian Internet Use Survey (CIUS). The data from this survey are different in several respects from the U.S. survey cited above, in particular because the CIUS asks respondents if they’ve never used the Internet, and why, whereas the NTIA research concerns broadband adoption. Nevertheless, many parallels show up between the two countries and their respective shortfalls in Internet and broadband adoption and usage. (The Stats Can analysts responsible for Internet research were very prompt and helpful in answering my questions; special thanks to Ben Veenhof for his support; any errors of interpretation are mine.)

Non-adopters. Use of dialup continues to drop sharply, and as of 2009, 92% of Canadians with Internet access at home used a high-speed connection. But if we look at the whole adult population, use of the Internet at home with a high-speed connection is cited by only 70% of all individuals 16 and over.

While this figure is up from 59% in 2007, it means 30% of Canadian adults did not have broadband at home as of one year ago. These figures are rarely cited by officials and politicians, who much prefer to boast of access levels near or at 100%.

Non-users. The CIUS also probes for respondents who have never used the Internet. On the 2009 survey, 17.7% of respondents aged 16 and older indicated they had never used the Internet for personal non-business reasons. A much smaller proportion of the 16 and older population, 2.0%, said they had used the Internet in the past, but not within the last 12 months, as of the time of the survey (the 2009 survey was in collection from Nov. 15 through Dec. 6, 2009).

If we combine these two figures, never used and not used in 12 months, we get roughly 20% of Canadians who are completely excluded from online life.

Reasons given. These non-users are asked in the survey why they find themselves on the outside. Recall that the chart above (based on the NTIA data) concerns reasons for not being on broadband, rather than not being on the Internet at all. So there are differences in the results cited, e.g., between those still on dialup and those who have never had home Internet access.

Nevertheless, many of the different reasons cited in the CIUS survey findings for not using the Internet can be combined into a broader “lacks literacy” category, much like the U.S. survey. As with the U.S. results, lack of skill or confidence leaves more Canadians out in the cold than cost. But the proportion of American respondents citing cost for not adopting broadband (26%) is understandably much higher than the corresponding Canadian figure for never having used the Internet – a mere 6.9% (note that these results include only respondents who said they never used the Internet and exclude those who haven’t used the Internet for the prior 12 months; figures don’t add to 100% as some respondents gave more than one reason):

Top reasons cited by Canadians 16+ for never having used the Internet

  • No interest (36.8%)
  • No need/not useful (20.7%)
  • Lack of skills or training (20.1%)
  • Age reasons/seniors (14.4%)
  • Limited access to a computer (14.1%)
  • Internet or computer too difficult to use (7.8%)
  • Cost of service or equipment (6.9%)
  • Not enough time (5.2%)
  • All other (10.1%)

The relative importance of literacy versus cost must be weighed carefully, however, since rankings change when we look at various sub-groups. The NTIA report notes (pp.13-14) that once an individual does get exposed to the Internet, the value proposition becomes considerably less important than the cost barrier:

“For example, respondents who do not use the Internet anywhere ranked the value proposition significantly higher than affordability. This contrasts with the category of households that do not access the Internet at home, which rated cost as the clear-cut top concern. Similarly, those in households with dial-up service identified cost as the most important reason for not having broadband connectivity at home.”

As a policy matter, in any case, technical access to broadband is a far more tractable problem than either literacy or high retail prices. Conquering Canada’s relentless geography is a snap compared to educating millions of disenfranchised citizens, let alone taking on the incumbents over their unregulated golden goose.

Who’s going to take care of the missing 30%?

While the CRTC frets over how to close the last 4 or 5% of total broadband coverage, a far greater number of Canadians isn’t about to get broadband any time soon – for reasons the CRTC claims are not part of its job description.

The Commission is right to take this position in at least one sense. Without a strong commitment and sense of vision from our political leaders, no agency is likely to make much headway in developing adequate outreach, subsidy and public education programs.

Don’t count on seeing this kind of leadership or any social regulation from the current government. While it may have had some changes of heart since last spring, the Tories’ consultation paper on the digital economy (Improving Canada’s Digital Advantage) made it very clear that the advantages are not intended for consumers, but for business in general and the content industries in particular.

When the Tories talk about “digital skills,” they don’t mean helping seniors get more out of life by teaching them how to use the Internet to communicate with friends and family. To start with, the benefits are not aimed at the individual but at keeping firms supplied with workers:

“Arguably the backbone of the digital economy is a strong, globally competitive information and communications technology sector. For a strong ICT sector, it is essential that Canada have a sufficient quantity of qualified ICT workers across occupations and geographical regions” (p.30, my emphasis).

Elsewhere, we read about our “digital content advantage,” which of course means professional not personal content. In this political universe, the Internet is a domestic content delivery system, and the skills to be developed are not for ordinary folk, but for job-seeking digital creators. Some of my best friends are job-seeking digital creators, and they deserve to eat like the rest of us. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Canadian Internet should be turned into an extension of the fading broadcasting system for the benefit of one small economic sector. Even if the whole Tory strategy for the digital economy were to be implemented successfully, it would do absolutely nothing for the missing 30% or consumers as a whole.

Meanwhile, even the mainstream press is starting to notice that Canada’s broadband initiatives are spreading more chaos than connectivity. In a feature article posted in November, Globe and Mail reporter Iain Marlow casts a critical eye over many features of our broadband infrastructure.

Despite his emphasis on building infrastructure in rural Canada, Marlow is careful to note that the fact “many people have Internet access available but don’t connect to it hints at additional barriers of poverty and digital illiteracy.” He also makes the bold observation that many Canadians have to connect at speeds of less than 1.5 Mbps – “barely faster than dial-up, which can take an hour to download an average music album.”

But his most damning comments are aimed at the failure of the Tory government to develop a definitive national strategy for broadband. He notes, for example, that the rural broadband initiative has been so poorly planned that competitors are bumping into each other, mystified as to who will turn up next with their own subsidy.

The Tories are in an ideological trap and, as a result, so is the CRTC. Taking care of the missing 30%, clearly a crucial part of any real broadband strategy, will mean upsetting the status quo and thus upsetting the incumbents. It will mean facing tough choices about an open Internet, Net Neutrality and rate regulation.

Moreover, the greatest benefits of the Internet for individual end-users do not fit neatly into a business or industrial rationale. Promoting – and regulating – professional content is a lot sexier than getting out of the way so that creative destruction can take us to the next level of innovation. Meanwhile, I see a long wait ahead for the digitally excluded.