Closing the “digital divide”: boosting public Wi-Fi during the pandemic

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by The CMA Foundation staff

Whether they’re applying for a job, taking a class or checking in with loved ones, people have never needed Internet access as much as they do during this pandemic. Yet finding affordable and reliable Internet remains a struggle for many Canadians, particularly when libraries, community centres, coffee shops and other sites offering free Wi-Fi access are closed.

“A big part of what we do is connecting people digitally. We are often a bridge for people who don’t have access,” said Kevin Crick, IT manager for Halifax Public Libraries. In his city, 14 library branches account for roughly 380,000 Wi-Fi connections per month. So when the pandemic began, and libraries closed, many people were disadvantaged. 

“It’s as essential as electricity and water,” said Crick. “When so much of the economic activity, social activity, entertainment activity is done on the Net, you can be disadvantaged without having access to broadband.”

With $40,000 in funding through the CMA Foundation COVID-19 Community Response Fund for Vulnerable Populations, Halifax responded to this digital divide by boosting public Wi-Fi at four libraries where neighbours were less likely to have Internet access — Captain William Spry Public Library, Musquodoboit Valley outlet, Sheet Harbour Public Library and the new branch in East Preston.

The CMA Foundation’s $10 million pledge has helped 73 communities across Canada support vulnerable citizens, through the COVID-19 Community Response Fund for Vulnerable Populations. Learn more.

The City of St. John’s took a similar approach during the pandemic.

With $60,500 from the COVID-19 Community Response Fund, the city was able to establish two public Wi-Fi areas in outdoor spaces close to street outreach services, Victoria Park and Bannerman Park.

St. John’s deputy mayor Sheilagh O’Leary, the council lead on affordable housing, explained the Wi-Fi project as “critical” to vulnerable community members.

In Halifax, Crick sees the Wi-Fi program as filling a community need that extends beyond the pandemic.  

“We are intending to run it forever,” he said. “Even at the best of times, there is that digital divide where not everyone has 24-hour access to Internet and online resources.”