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Canada's Digital Divide Persists, CIRA Report Shows

This Is How Big Canada's Digital Divide Is

Canada is one of the most wired countries in the world, but a growing number of connected households is not helping to close a persistent digital divide, a new report suggests.

The Canadian Internet Registration Authority’s 2014 Factbook found that 87 per cent of Canadian households are now connected to the internet, compared to 80 per cent in 2010. The country ranks 16th globally in terms of internet penetration rates.

However, CIRA also found that while 95 per cent of Canadians in the highest income quartile are connected, just 62 per cent in the lowest income quartile have internet access.

There is also a still a pronounced divide between access for those in urban centres versus rural and remote households. Broadband is available to 100 per cent of Canadians in urban areas, compared to 85 per cent in rural areas.

In remote northern communities, the digital gap is even more pronounced. Canadians in Nunavut, a region with just 36,000 residents spread across a landmass nearly three times the size of Texas, have the worst levels of connection. Only 27 per cent of communities in that territory have internet access.

The federal government pledged in this year’s budget to provide $305 million in funds over five years to provide or improve high-speed broadband to about 280,000 households and businesses in areas of Canada that are underserved.

But critics have said that may not be enough to cover the required infrastructure and warn that a failure to address the connection gap in remote parts of the country could have dire economic consequences, especially given the government’s focus on opening up the regions for resource development.

Regionally, British Columbia and Alberta have the largest number of connected households, with 86 per cent, while connection rates were lowest in Quebec and on the East Coast, where rates are under 80 per cent.

CIRA's graphic of internet speeds and costs around the world. Click on image to see full size

Overall, the report found that Canadians’ internet usage is outpacing that of global peers, visiting an average 3,731 web pages per month, the most of any country. Canadians also ranked second behind Americans in terms of hours spent online, with an average 41.3 hours online each month, compared to a global average of 24.6 hours.

Still, Canada lags behind its global peers in terms of broadband speed and costs, CIRA noted, citing the country’s steady decline on an OECD list comparing global speeds and prices. Canada ranked 19th in the world in 2014.

Sweden and Japan have topped the list for years, likely due to national strategies aimed at improving access, speed and prices, CIRA said. Canada, meanwhile, has no national strategy.

CIRA said improving those measures could be a crucial component in boosting the economy.

“Broadband speed and price are important to both the end user (in terms of cheaper, faster service) and Canada’s digital economy, as they comprise a nation’s ‘digital currency’ making it a more attractive place for start-ups and investment,” it said.

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