What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of internet service providers? The first thing that comes to my mind are giant and impersonal mega corporations that see communities as nothing more than customers.
However, there are alternatives to these massive companies, and while they may humble in size, they have an ambitious vision for the revolutionary potential that access to the internet has both locally and internationally.
A case in point is National Capital Freenet (NCF) which is a not-for-profit social enterprise based in Ottawa.
Through its services, NCF takes a community-driven approach to achieving its goal, which is fighting the digital divide by providing high quality, affordable, safe and understandable internet to Ottawa.
The digital divide describes the state affairs that exists between those who benefit from the advantages that access to the internet affords and those who do not.
Over one third of Canadians struggle to afford home internet and keep up with other expenses, according to research by ACORN Canada. And that was before the COVID-19 crisis made access to quality internet even more central to the lives of Canadians.
“The digital divide reflects existing social inequities, and in fact sometimes exacerbates them.” says Shelley Robinson, Executive Director of NCF.
NCF saw the usage rate of their membership jump 30 per cent at the start of the pandemic and the demand for speed become more pressing. It’s evident that if Canada is to become a more just society, ensuring affordable access to internet and a population with knowledge and skills to make use of it is critical.
The world has recognized the need to reduce inequality and provide access to education through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and in its own small way NCF is contributing to those goals.
The internet has a great potential to level the playing field for those trapped in cycles of poverty.
“It’s access to information, its access to opportunity,” said Robinson. “I think Covid has really laid bare the problems of the digital divide and also laid bare the opportunities.”
Beyond providing cheaper access to internet services, NCF has run workshops which have:
- Partnered with Ottawa ACORN to help people with low to moderate incomes to apply for underused government subsidies.
- Run work shops on the privacy trade offs of supposedly free online services.
- Taught elderly members of the community to recognize scams and other cyber threats.
Beyond this direct support for its community, NCF also offers a vision for the future that sees vulnerable and disenfranchised individuals banding together in communities of interest.
“Through this community of interest, people can band together, feel less alone and also start to take action to make change, and I think that’s really significant” said Robinson.
In the future National Capital Freenet plan to begin to build mesh networks in working class neighborhoods. They envision building antennas that would provide cheap and perhaps even free Wi-fi for these communities.
And NCF is only apart of a broader movement across Canada and the world pushing these kinds of initiatives. A growing network of community driven organizations is taking action into their own hands, even if it’s just a matter of ensuring people can access good, cheap internet.
“Do I think NCF specifically is making a global difference, I don’t. Do I think that like organizations like NCF that are committed in their communities to working on solutions around connectivity are making progress, yeah,” said Robinson.