by Mac Olsen
It’s hard to imagine a there was a time without email and the Internet.
My introduction to the Internet was in the fall of 1995, when I was part of the office administration program at Camosun College in Victoria, B.C. The very first time I sent an email from my computer to an instructor, it seemed a novelty to me.
Now, in my job as a reporter, I’m multi-tasking by using Facebook for RCMP news releases, emailing photos to the South Peace News or Lakeside Leader, uploading files to a cloud service for offsite storage and streaming movies from Netflix to my home TV or computer. Much of that functionality is available on my smartphone, too.
All of this is possible because I am located in a good geographic location for high-speed Internet access. Granted, I switched Internet providers for my residence a few months ago because I wanted better service, and it has been outstanding to date.
But I and many other people can easily take for granted that access to the Internet and social media is at the ready.
It’s easy to forget that there are many people in Canada and around the world who don’t have access to basic Internet and email services. Or it’s very expensive for them to access what is available.
I read a report in The Globe and Mail last week about the struggle Nunavut is having with its Internet service.
“With 37,000 people living in 25 communities without road access sprawled across one-fifth of Canada’s land mass, high-speed Internet is a crucial tool to address isolation in Nunavut. But service providers, advocates and the territory’s government say that can’t be achieved without greater investments in infrastructure to connect the region to the south.
“It is overwhelmingly remote, indigenous communities that are at the bottom of all metrics when it comes to telecommunications services,” the report begins.
“‘Specific efforts should be made to ensure that indigenous communities in particular do not continue to be left behind,’ Oana Spinu, executive director of the non-profit Nunavut Broadband Development Corporation, told a panel of commissioners from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC),'” in Gatineau, Quebec on April 12.
Since last year, the CRTC has been holding hearings across the country to learn about the challenges of providing service to rural and remote regions and to come up with recommendations on how to improve it.
If the Nunavut experience is any indication of that struggle, then I think it’s imperative for a national strategy, with provincial and private sector support, to address it in the best, most cost-efficient manner.
But there are some success stories for Nunavut. One is the First Mile Connectivity Consortium’s. Their website, http://firstmile.ca, has information about what some are doing to bridge the gap.
One story on that site is about IsumaTV, building innovative digital systems to share high-def streaming video in low-speed remote communities, in the far north of Nunavut. Check it for further details.
Many First Nations are also struggling to provide improved Internet access, but there are some success stories here, too.
One is the First Nations SchoolNet. It connects First Nations students and schools to the world.
According to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada’s website, http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca:
“Internet access through the First Nations SchoolNet program has opened the doors to educational, economic, personal and professional opportunities for First Nations students and teachers on reserve. All schools on reserve have access to the Internet with close to 50 per cent connected by a high speed digital telephone line.
“Access means students can connect and learn from each other, develop new skills, and participate in national and international events. It also means that many federal services are brought into communities thanks to SchoolNet.”
Six non-profit First Nations SchoolNet Regional Management Organizations deliver the program in their respective region, working with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. Check the Keewatin Career Development Corporation’s website for more information about Alberta and Saskatchewan.
But again, there are other First Nations communities that struggle to provide improved Internet access to their peoples.
The Internet has become an indispensable part of daily life. This includes health care information and delivery, job and career information, delivery of government and private sector services and programs, not to mention the telecommunication, social media and other applications that we use on a daily basis.
What started out as dial-up service in the early 1990s with limited application and an undefined role has become the mainstream source by which we conduct much of daily life now. It is no longer acceptable for the majority of people to have access to this vital tool, and not the rest of society. However, I am not going to say that it is a human right to have access to the Internet.
In 2011, the United Nations declared that access to the Internet is a human right and access should not be blocked or denied to anyone.
In Canada’s case, I can see the day when there will be a legal challenge launched under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, deeming such access to be a right of all Canadians. And I’m sure that the Supreme Court of Canada will hand down such a decision.
But mandating access to the Internet won’t necessarily bring about the change that proponents desire, especially if the private telecommunications companies and Internet Service Providers are put in the hot seat. Ideally, it’s a continued public-private partnership that will help to improve services to rural and remote regions of the country.
This will be especially important for First Nations and the Inuit. Continued cooperation between federal, provincial and private funding partners is the best way to improve access.
Meanwhile, those of us who have high-speed Internet access should do what we can to advocate for those who don’t.