The search is on for a “one-size-fits-all” solution that connects all Canadians to fast internet and gives them the skills they need to thrive online. Unfortunately, this solution doesn’t exist.

Canada’s telecommunications providers have gotten us a long way towards universal connectivity. But community groups, researchers and charities also play an important role in advancing Canada’s digital development objectives. Scores of groups lead projects to promote digital equity for all Canadians – both in terms of actual access to broadband services, as well as the skills needed to participate in our increasingly digital society. Equity in this context doesn’t mean getting the latest iPhone into every Canadian’s hand. It means addressing the digital imbalances that are holding communities back.

These groups face tremendous challenges. In October, my organization, the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), published a report titled Unconnected: Funding shortfalls, policy imbalances and how they are contributing to Canada’s digital underdevelopment.

We set out to understand the funding landscape for digital development projects in Canada, led 50 in-depth interviews and conducted 65 online surveys with practitioners working on infrastructure, digital literacy, cybersecurity and policy advocacy initiatives.

We found that funding for these kinds of projects is minimal and difficult for community groups to access. But our research also unearthed important, under-discussed systemic barriers preventing progress towards Canada’s digital development goals.

The first barrier our respondents identified was a fundamental lack of institutional support for digital-development work. For example, while CIRA awards $1.25 million in grants for internet-related projects each year, respondents told us it is one of the only digitally focused funding programs of its type in the country.

Some government funding options exist, but they’re largely inaccessible to not-for-profits and charities working on internet-related projects. Think tank and philanthropic foundation funding (common in other sectors like environmental conservation or mental health services) is largely absent for digital development work.

By contrast, the United States and European Union have a more developed tradition of digital philanthropy that actively supports initiatives typically overlooked in Canada. Funders like the U.S.-based Ford Foundation recognize how equitable connectivity empowers civic participation in their country’s culture, economy and democracy. Respondents told us this is not yet the case amongst Canadian funders.

The absence of domestic support has forced many practitioners in this sector to look abroad for funding. Unfortunately, international support for digital development work taking place inside Canada is largely unavailable. One respondent told us: “Europe has more [funding] than Canada, but U.S. foundations will play in Europe because they see it as ‘somewhere else,’ whereas they will not typically invest in Canada.”

The domestic funding that does exist is highly competitive and favours those with the resources and skills required to navigate labyrinthian application processes. Denise Williams, chief executive officer of the First Nations Technology Council in British Columbia, shared her experience: “The granting process is incredibly difficult because it forces communities to compete with each other in a very westernized proposal-writing or expression-of-interest process. I have questions for why we have to compete with each other.”

While money is indeed in short supply, most people we spoke to cautioned that funding alone is not a panacea.

The second set of barriers our research identified were legislative and consultative in nature. Without significant statutory reform and changes in how government consults civil society, progress towards Canada’s digital development goals will be stymied.

Here’s just one example: in the digital development sector, connectivity is a hot topic. The gap between those who have access to high-quality internet services and those who do not – the so-called “digital divide” – has received a lot of attention, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic has forced so much of Canadians’ daily lives online.

The government has put billions of dollars on the table to help internet service providers expand rural broadband access. Despite this, respondents emphasized that structural changes are necessary before additional funding can really make a difference for all Canadians.

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One funder we spoke with stated the problem succinctly: “Funding is key, but more funding is not going to be the solution. The reason is that the current system is based on the consumer market model, and government does not intervene unless the market is not serving. Well, the market has not been serving rural populations, when it comes to connectivity, for a long time. That is where a systemic change is needed.”

Others pointed to a lack of statutory requirements that compel Canada’s telecommunications providers to provide universal internet access. While there is an aspirational basic service objective, companies don’t have a legal obligation to serve any given population with broadband. Meanwhile, the United States has a legally mandated universal service obligation as part of the 1934 Communications Act.

Equity within the regulatory process is also a challenge. Canada’s communications regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), regularly consults the public and develops regulations affecting all digital development stakeholders in Canada. The commission functions as a quasi-judicial court with a complex structure and processes that can be confusing for those who wish to participate.

While the CRTC operates a program that allows the costs of public interest participation to be reimbursed, the process is notoriously complex, long and fraught with procedural delays. The timelines are often too delayed for groups already struggling with limited funding and institutional support.

As a result, cash-strapped digital development stakeholders have to pick and choose which policy-making processes they participate in, while large, well-resourced companies can take part in every proceeding.

For example, a recent analysis found that Canada’s internet service providers met with the government and telecommunications regulator 577 times over a 12-month period, compared to only 10 encounters with not-for-profit advocacy organizations. In the absence of systemic policy changes or increased funding for digital development, our research suggests that government and regulators will continue to make communications and digital policy decisions based largely, or even solely, on input from industry.

Groups in this sector feel intense pressure to have a seat at the table with better-resourced, multi-billion-dollar companies and their lobbyists – and that’s not realistic without additional resources. Laura Tribe, executive director of the grassroots digital advocacy group OpenMedia, explained the situation succinctly: “There’s zero funding for anything that might be remotely political and anything that says the system is broken.”

This dynamic of limited funding compounded with legislative and consultative barriers creates a vicious cycle of stakeholder imbalance – one that urgently needs to be corrected.

Canadian funders and philanthropic organizations should develop their own digital philanthropy streams. When they do that, they should give serious consideration to prioritizing funding for policy advocacy activities, which is one of the most underfunded areas in the sector.

Policy-makers should also design legislation that helps bring diverse voices to the table by creating new funding opportunities for public policy engagement, for example.

This is about more than stakeholder imbalances in digital policy-making. This is about the health of our democracy. Canadian funders and policy-makers need to recognize that digital equity is essential to advancing economic development, racial justice and other social good.

This article is part of the Digital Connectivity in the COVID Era and Beyond special feature. 

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Maureen James
Maureen James manages the community investment program at the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA). She is an expert in not-for-profit fundraising and is currently working to establish a new tradition of digital philanthropy in Canada.

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