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Achieving Universal Access to the Internet: An Impossible Dream?

University of Ottawa, Department of Communications Speaker Series on Communication, Social Justice and the Common Good

Philippa Lawson

March 18, 1999

I work for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, which is a small non-profit organization based here in Ottawa, devoted primarily to representing the residential consumer interest in the regulation of public utilities and the provision of essential services. PIAC has been around since the mid-70’s, and has been particularly active in the regulation of telecommunications services during this time.

Let me tell you a bit about my clients: they live on low, often fixed incomes, which do not leave a lot of room for discretionary spending. A lot of them are seniors, who have difficulty adapting to new technologies. A lot are single parents, struggling to raise children while making ends meet. Many are unemployed, and looking for work. A disproportionate number cope with physical disabilities, and like many seniors, find it difficult to get out of the house.

These are the people who would benefit most from being electronically connected, but they are also the people for whom a computer with Internet connection is a luxury which falls outside their budget. As a result, they fall, disproportionately, into the category of information “have-nots”, which just compounds the social marginalization they already suffer.

My work on behalf of these people over the past eight years has focused on maintaining the affordability of basic telephone service. This has been a major battle. The forces of competition and globalization, we found out, are insurmountable. However, we have won a few skirmishes, and in the process, obtained concessions that should prevent, or at least mitigate, some of the excesses of free reign market forces. Yes, basic local phone rates have doubled since competition was introduced, but a mechanism is in place to limit further increases, the number of homes without phones is being monitored with a view to potentially establishing a targeted subsidy for low income households, and various rules are in place to protect consumers from abusive behaviour by marketers.

Until recently, groups like the National Anti-Poverty Organization did not consider Internet access to be an essential service – by essential, I mean necessary for full participation in society. In fact, I can’t say that they consider it essential right now, in the same way that phone service is essential, but they do recognize the speed with which this new electronic medium is catching on, the tremendous potential that it holds for their constituents, and the risk of increasing marginalization that unequal access to the Internet poses for their already disadvantaged members.

As a result, they are calling on the federal government and the CRTC to ensure, through regulatory mechanisms or otherwise, that all Canadians have access to a defined set of basic telecommunications services, including, but not limited to single line service (as opposed to party line service), flat rates for local calling and local access to the Internet at speeds that meet contemporary standards.

I’m quoting from a document entitled “Consumer Charter for a Connected Canada” – a manifesto of sorts signed by over 150 organizations from across the country, and presented to the CRTC and the government during the CRTC’s recent proceeding on high cost areas. The Charter calls for comparable rates and quality of service in rural and urban areas. It calls for affordable prices for “basic service”, and for public input into an ongoing process of determining what constitutes “basic service”. And it calls for subsidies to achieve these ends.

One thing that these groups share is the knowledge that market forces tend to work in favour of the already privileged and to the detriment of the vulnerable; that one of the most important roles of government in the information society is to intervene in proactive ways so as to harness technology and market forces for the benefit of society.

Access to What?

The Internet is not easy to describe, because it is sui generis – it’s a completely new thing.

When radio was first introduced, it was referred to as “wireless telegraph”. People were groping for familiar concepts that they could attach to it. It took some time before everyone understood what radio was. Similarly with the Internet: we’re still getting used to the concept.

I initially used the term “information highway” in my title. But like “wireless telegraph”, it’s an inadequate analogy. What we are talking about is far more than a route – it’s also the destination. It’s not just a mode of transport – it’s also the act of driving. It’s about more than information – it’s also about communication.

The Information Highway Advisory Council characterizes the Internet as “rather than a highway, ….a personalized village square where people eliminate the barriers of time and distance and interact in a kaleidoscope of different ways.” Others have referred to it as an “electronic commons”. But we’re not just talking about public space here, although that might be exactly what we need to focus on. We’re also talking about individual and commercial private spaces, which can be accessed through this common medium.

Certainly, the highway metaphor doesn’t capture the participatory nature of this medium, nor the fact that information exchange and interactivity on the Net has a cumulative, multiplier effect: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Nor does it capture the multiple roles which a single user can play: as author and reader, producer and consumer, teacher and student.

The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a term that encapsulates what electronic networks can do and are doing for people. There doesn’t seem to be a perfect analogy for the range of applications that the electronic media present: e-mail, listservs, websites – both commercial and non-commercial, discussion groups, government information and services, consumer transactions, distance education……

So let’s just use the term “Internet” – that’s what it is. We’re reaching the stage where we don’t need to analogize.

Here’s what people are using the Internet for right now: [show slides with survey results]

The Importance of Access

Why is access to the Internet so important?

1. The value of any network increases with the square of the number of individuals connected. This is what makes networks unique among other utilities like roads, transportation, electricity, etc. – their economic value depends upon their coverage. Imagine if we had a number of separate telephone networks, each an entity onto itself. Any one network would be of limited value, since it would allow you to reach only a limited number of people. So, the more people hooked up, the more valuable the network is to its existing subscribers. (This applies to users both as consumers and producers: commercial entities benefit from universal access as well.)

2. Telecommunications links are particularly valuable to those living and working in rural and remote areas, where people often have no other option for communicating with family, friends, government agencies, or service providers, or for conducting business. Good telecommunications links allow for the revitalization of rural communities, through the opening of new economic opportunities, as well as the delivery of new educational and health care services

Native peoples living in Canada’s north have long cited reliable, affordable communications facilities as a top priority in order for their cultural and economic survival. A representative from the Eastern Arctic told the CRTC in its hearings last spring that:

…the basis of the whole Government of Nunavut and our ability to compete in a global economy is going to be dependent on telecommunications services. Though right now people may be focused on basic services, the whole future, the one thing we have more than anything else is distance and isolation. Telecommunications will allow us to bridge those.

In fact, the CRTC heard over and over again from people in rural and remote areas how important it is to their communities and economies that state-of-the-art telecommunications service, including Internet access, be provided at affordable rates.

As the Mayor of Yellowknife stated,

One of the great ironies of living and working in the North is that its remoteness and challenging environment have resulted in both the highest cost for and greatest reliance upon telecommunications in all of Canada.

If made available at affordable prices to people in rural and remote areas, the Internet has the potential to significantly reduce regional disparities.

It also has the potential to bridge distances, both nationally and internationally. While language differences will continue to be an obstacle, increased communication between people of different cultures and nationalities can contribute to global cooperation and international understanding. People with common interests worldwide can share their knowledge and enthusiasm. Families can maintain close links over large distances. The world can be a better place.

3. The most important reason why we should be working to achieve universal access to the Internet is its potential for individual and community empowerment. Not only can Internet access break down regional barriers, it can also break down social barriers. Individuals can, at minimal cost, set up websites, promote themselves, advertise and publish their work. People suddenly have vast quantities of information at their fingertips, an unprecedented opportunity for personal growth and learning. With e-mail, we now have a revolutionary new way of communicating. This is about much more than consumerism (assuming that commercial interests don’t take over the Internet); it’s about empowering people in their social roles as citizens and community members, as well as in their economic roles as producers and consumers.

I’m sure that you’re all familiar with that saying “The great thing about the Internet is that no one knows you’re a dog.” Well, it’s been pointed out that on the Internet, no one knows that you’re homeless. In fact, homeless people are using free e-mail and Internet access at public sites like libraries to inform themselves, to communicate with others.

Listen to what this senior has to say about the National Capital FreeNet:

“As a senior, a lot of time housebound, my computer is my best friend… to contact my friends, to learn and keep up with the world… and as a retired teacher, I also communicate with the schools and write to the students who have written on their school’s page….I enjoy my computer and the Internet… as a friend… as an escape when I cannot go out… to keep my mind working, to learn, to continue to learn… while I am still alive.”

But just as the Internet can break down social barriers, it can further reinforce them. The knife cuts both ways: if we don’t achieve universal access, if Internet access remains a privilege of the social elite, we risk exacerbating existing social disparities and creating an even more polarized society of “information haves” and “information have-nots”. The stakes are high.

It’s another story at the level of communities – and I don’t just mean geographic communities. Here, the Internet is proving itself to be a tremendously powerful tool of influence. It has been said that “the easier it is to communicate, the faster change occurs”. Advocacy groups can now share information, network among themselves, and mobilize their members like never before.

Look what happened to the MAI when the word got out over the Internet. Look what happened to Suharto, when students used the Internet to organize their movement for democracy in Indonesia. Look what has happened to Pinochet, now that human rights groups can mobilize in support of the Spanish prosecution. These are wonderful examples of citizen empowerment, that were made possible in large part by the Internet.

Individual empowerment, citizen participation and advocacy, community development – THIS is why access to the Internet is so important.

But there is an awareness hurdle ahead of us. Significant proportions of Canadians don’t appreciate the benefits that Internet access can bring them. According to a 1997 survey of Canadians by Ekos Research, almost half of those without a computer at home cited as the main reason that they didn’t need one, or weren’t interested in having one. Over half of those without Internet access from home cited lack of interest or need as the main reason. One quarter of non-Internet users in Canada think that the Internet has no information of interest to them. These people are primarily older, lower income and rural. In some respects, they are the very people who could benefit most from the technology.

More recent statistics show a disturbing trend: since the Fall of 1996, the percent of Canadian adults with access to the Internet (from home or work) has grown from 37% to 55%. But, it’s stayed at 55% for the last several months – we seemed to have reached a plateau in access. At the same time, those connected (largely upper income, urban, young and male) continue to increase their usage.

Lest we get too excited about the potential of the Internet, I feel obliged to point out a few sobering statistics. These shouldn’t really surprise you:

51% of weekly web users in Canada (26% of Canadian adults) say that they get frustrated. (When I told my husband this, he asked “what are the other 49% smoking?”)

According to the Ekos survey, a significant minority (42%) agreed with the statement that “the Information Highway is destroying human relationships with its emphasis on keyboards and impersonal contact”.

The same proportion (43%) said that they actually knew “some people who spend so much time at home using the Internet and other computer activities like games, that it has had a negative impact on the quality of their family life”.

The Internet has tremendous potential as an agent of social change, but this potential is not unmitigated.

The Meaning of Access

A great deal of work has been done by Leslie Shade, Andrew Clement and others on the conceptualization of access: breaking the concept of access down into its various elements, and thereby broadening the discussion beyond mere connection to include content, literacy and governance. I’m going to assume that you are familiar with the seven layer or “rainbow” model of access that Leslie and Andrew developed, and instead give you a slightly different, but complementary, analysis.

I see access as having five constituent elements: availability, affordability, accessibility, operability, and governance. In each case, we are talking about the individual not just as a consumer, but also as a producer; not just as a receiver, but also a provider. Interactivity is fundamental to our concept of access.

1. Availability

Many people – most people worldwide, and some within Canada – do not even have available to them a means of connecting to the Internet. I’ve referred to a recent CRTC proceeding on high cost areas – we found out, in that proceeding, that many Canadians, particularly in northern areas, don’t even have phone service, not because the rates are unaffordable, but because the service is simply not available. Many more with telephone lines still don’t have access to the Internet, whether because of poor line quality or lack of a local Internet service provider (ISP).

2. Affordability

Providing a means of physical access is of limited value unless people can afford to take advantage of it. We need to find ways of achieving affordable access without stifling competition among service providers. Postal service used to be our primary method of distance communication. Telecommunications, and increasingly the Internet, have taken over that role. Just as rates for postal service were regulated to be equitable and affordable for all Canadians, rates for basic telecommunications service, the platform on which Internet access is built, need to be maintained at equitable and affordable levels.

But the physical network is not the only expensive part of this equation. You need a computer and a modem in order to connect with the Internet. You need software. You need an network access provider. No wonder that there is a “digital divide”! No wonder that half as many low income Canadians use the Internet as do higher income Canadians. No wonder that less than half as many low income Canadians have a computer in the home, and only a third as many have Internet access from the home. No wonder that 38% of Canadians without a home computer cite cost as the main reason. (Interestingly, only 20% of those without Internet access cite cost as the main reason).

Affordability is an issue at every stage: computer hardware prices, software prices, rates for the underlying facilities over which the Internet will be reached, and rates charged by the gatekeepers to the Internet.

3. Accessibility

The service may be available and affordable, but if it’s not designed so that everyone can use it, including those with disabilities, then we will be once again further marginalizing an already disadvantaged population. Devices need to be easy to use – for everyone. And speaking from personal experience, we need to do something about repetitive strain injury.

4. Operability

Computers, interactivity, e-mail, the Web – it’s a whole new language, a completely strange and unfamiliar medium, which intimidates people (at least, adult people). Concepts such as websites, search engines, newsgroups, modems, Internet Service Providers – these are all foreign to many people. Sure, some people can pick it up fast, but I can tell you from experience that many more have real difficulty.

Take my father: even after three or four years of writing almost daily letters to the editor on his computer, I’m still not sure that he understands the concept of files and directories. He’s become a big e-mail user, but has barely ventured onto the Web – it’s just too much: too much information; too much frustration, in his view.

And that’s assuming that everything is working properly. Things go wrong far too often. It’s a legitimate question whether computers in the workplace have actually improved productivity. Think of all those files you’ve lost, time you’ve spent trying to access e-mail attachments, or frustration you’ve had dealing with viruses. Why can’t my colleagues with Microsoft Word read my documents in WordPerfect? Why doesn’t the help menu ever have what I’m looking for? Why do my return e-mails to spammers always come back “undeliverable”?

A key element of access is overcoming these obstacles to frustration-free usage. Computer systems and programs will have to become more inter-operable, less prone to breakdown, and more dummie-proof, if the vast population of non-users is to be convinced.

In the meantime, training and support will continue to be an critical piece of the puzzle. People need to be taught this new language: it is not going to come naturally.

5. Governance

Finally, and in some ways most importantly, is the issue of governance. Like availability, affordability, accessibility and operability, the issue of governance arises at all levels of access: at the level of the markets for computer hardware and software; the provision of underlying facilities; the provision of Internet access; and the Internet itself – Who controls domain names? How are technical standards and protocols decided? Who ultimately controls the Internet?

In each of these areas, there must be a structure of governance that is accountable to the public, that has as its overriding concern the public interest, however elusive that concept might be.

Looking first at the markets for access services and devices, we have learned over and over again the impermanence and limitations of competition and market forces. Regulatory bodies such as the Competition Bureau and the CRTC are essential in order to cultivate healthy competition, to guard against anti-competitive mergers and business practices, and to fill in the gaps that market forces leave open.

The Microsoft case currently underway in the US, in my view, is a good example of governments acting in the public interest to promote real, sustainable competition in an important market. The CRTC’s recent ruling requiring service providers to contribute toward the subsidization of rates in high cost areas is another good example of appropriate regulatory intervention.

And the process followed by the CRTC in coming to its decisions is public and open. The CRTC’s recent proceeding on New Media is a great example of appropriate public consultation, of including the public in policy-making right from the beginning.

Regulation and governance pose much more difficult issues at the international level, where the predominant ethos is one of laissez-faire, and where multinational corporations seem to be running the show. We must beware that our national governments don’t bargain away in trade negotiations their rights to take regulatory measures designed to improve and extend access.

Turning to the Internet itself, things get messier. We don’t have existing structures or even models of governance appropriate to this strange creature. We have to come up with something entirely new. The prevailing belief out there seems to be that the Internet is a well-functioning anarchy, and that we can and should just let it be. I’d like to believe that too, but unfortunately, the facts tell a different story. The are, in fact, a number of control points which provide tremendous power over the Internet to those in charge.

Until recently, the US government was in de facto charge. It provided the brains and the funding behind the various ad hoc processes and structures in control of the Internet. That has changed. A new, non-profit organization called ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) has been formed to take over the centralized decision-making functions necessary to the operation of the Internet. This private-sector model of Internet governance has been endorsed by 17 national governments, including Canada, who take the position that solutions to the fast-moving evolution of the Internet must be market-led.

It remains to be seen how the public interest will be served by a private body with no clear lines of accountability. One can’t help but be reminded of the IOC and its recent shananigans. Even more disconcerting is the potential for private commercial interests to take over what was a model of user participation and cooperative processes and procedures.

I agree with those that advocate moving the ICANN process to an international agency representative of and accountable to all those communities that use the Internet, and that make up the global public interest. We need to ensure that whatever governance processes develop, they are subject to influence by the full range of public interests worldwide and are not beholden to the interests of a dominant country or stakeholder sector.

So, that’s what I mean by “access”.

“Universal Access”

Which still leaves open the question of what we mean by “Universal Access” – where’s the limit? How much are we willing to spend to hook up those in really isolated locations? to bring broadband access to every home? How far do we go pushing this on people who aren’t keen?

At some point, the cost/benefit scales shift. This is a difficult call to make, and I can tell you that no one wants to make it. I suspect that it will continue to be made by default, and that we will have enough trouble extending access to those in need that we won’t have to worry about overextending. The good news is that costs continue to decline, and as they do, the limits of what is economically feasible and publicly acceptable continue to be expanded.

In the meantime, the Canadian government is doing the right thing under its agenda of “Connecting Canadians”, by concentrating efforts on supporting community initiatives and by providing Internet access in public places like libraries and community centres. Recent surveys show strong public support for these initiatives. They also show that a slight majority of Canadians would consider going to a community access site in order to use the Internet free of charge.

It’s also important not to get so carried away with access initiatives that we lose sight of the context. Many people don’t want access – they have cottages precisely to get away from it all. For many, the last thing they want to do after a day of staring at a computer screen developing carpal tunnel syndrome at the office is to come home and do more of the same. There’s no need to subsidize home access for these people, and we certainly shouldn’t be pushing something on them that they don’t want.

Conclusions

Is universal access an impossible dream?

I don’t think so, at least not in Canada. Relative to most other countries, we are well on the way – we have high telephone penetration rates, high cable TV penetration rates, and relatively high Internet access rates. Our government has made a serious commitment to connecting all Canadians, and is putting a lot of effort into seeing this happen.

But there’s a lot more work to be done.

We need to focus on the less privileged end of the social spectrum, and direct government subsidies and programs to the most needy.

We need to follow up on the provision of equipment and connections, with adequate support and training.

We need to create sustainable community access initiatives which cultivate public space on the Internet, where citizens can engage in discussion and learning away from the hubbub of the marketplace.

We need our governments to intervene in the market when competition is not doing the job, or when healthy competition is being threatened by dominant players.

We also need our governments to develop publicly accountable and participatory models of governance for the Internet.

We’re well on the way, but it’s no time to relax.

Thank you.

 

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