Poll saying ‘relevance’ of internet is key issue for non-users misses the real point: affordability

IPSOS Public Affairs released a poll in mid-December 2015 which indicated that affordability was not the biggest problem for people accessing the internet but rather a lack of interest. They found that 49% of non-internet-using Canadians say they don’t subscribe due to a lack of relevance. They also state that only 30% of those not subscribing say cost is the major factor.

The trouble with this poll is how it treats the Canadians that do not subscribe to the internet. The summary of the poll states “The Digital Divide is often seen as being driven primarily by income inequality but, in fact, lack of affordability is only a barrier for a fraction of Canadians”.

The statement suggests that affordability of internet really isn’t too much of a problem in Canada. But if you look at the percentage of non-users of the internet at home overall (9% – made up of 5% that don’t use it at all and 4% that access only elsewhere or via a mobile device) and then look at the methodology of the poll, it becomes very easy to confuse high- and middle-income non-users with a low income non-users. This potential confusion is exacerbated by the presentation of the poll in the Ipsos summary and subsequent reporting.  So, when the poll summary states that “In fact, most (70%) non-subscribers do not mention cost at all as a barrier” that includes non-users from all income brackets –  from less than $25K to over $100K. The poll sought a general account of Canadians’ internet participation and a general reason for non-participation. But it oversteps its bounds by trying to downplay affordability without ever questioning those polled about affordability, in particular, those Canadians who have lower than average incomes.

If you ignore the blanket statements made in the poll summary and just look at the numbers, it is a much more telling story. Among those who make less than $25,000 a year, 30% don’t subscribe to the internet. When you go just above $25K  to the next income level ($25-$50K), only 11% don’t use it, and that trend continues its decline to only 2% among the highest earners polled (over $100K). That is a stark difference in access rates.

An important aspect of the affordability question that wasn’t considered at all is how to define “affordability”. In PIAC’s recent affordability research, done with ACORN Canada, we spoke to many low-income individuals about their use of the internet. There were those who did not subscribe, but there were also many who did still subscribe and who were sacrificing other essentials in order to access the internet. Affordability is better measured not just by asking ‘do you subscribe to the internet’ but rather, what are low-income subscribers doing to afford the internet? If the answer is taking from their food budget, then is that really affordable? Without asking any further questions about affordability, the poll can’t so easily dismiss affordability (cost) as a real issue among non-users and low-income users alike.

We are currently in the middle of the Basic Service Objective (BSO) hearing , where the CRTC will decide whether internet access is an essential service for Canadians, not unlike the telephone. The structure and presentation of this poll seems to draw attention away from the idea that many Canadians are struggling with the high price of internet, and instead, blame them as “unengaged” consumers.

The poll summary states “…a more salient issue is that of relevance, i.e. those who see the value of the internet in their lives are willing to pay for it, and those who don’t are not.” However if, as we suspect, the internet has indeed become an essential part of Canadians’ lives, they will find a way to pay for it, if possible. And those who cannot pay for it at all will pay in their personal lives with social exclusion and lack of opportunities to participate in the digital economy.  Without diving into the real question of affordability, and the effects of it upon internet use by low-income Canadians, the poll only muddies the debate.

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