Topping the list of must-have school supplies: internet access

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This September, there are only two students in Riham Mohamed’s house, instead of three. She’s the one not going back to school: Ms. Mohamed is finally licensed as a pharmacist in Canada, able to practice the profession that she held in her home country of Egypt.

It was a long journey. Ms. Mohamed is a single mother, and settled with her two children, now 14 and 11, in Mississauga when she immigrated in 2012. She paid her bills working part-time for minimum wage as a pharmacy assistant, while also studying part-time at the University of Toronto. To afford tuition, she took out a $17,000 loan, which isn’t much less than her annual income.

Ms. Mohamed never applied for social assistance – “I didn’t want to take something which people might be needing,” she said – but she is thankful for other programs that help offset the high cost of raising a family in the Greater Toronto Area. Federal child benefits paid her rent, and programs that make public transit passes, electricity and kids programs more affordable for low-income people were also greatly welcome.

One thing she was never able to get a good discount on was internet access.

“I told them, I have been with you for years and you are always offering new offers for new clients, what about your older clients?” she said about her long-term provider. “They said the maximum they could do was to take $5 off my bill for three months only.”

Internet access is essential to modern life, and the government agrees: In December, 2016, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission ruled that high-speed internet is a basic telecommunications service, a category previously limited to local telephone landlines.

This is obviously true for students. As early as elementary school, children require after-hours access to class portals to do homework. High school students must read extra material and submit work online and the idea of a postsecondary student without internet at home is ludicrous.

One in four Toronto children lives in poverty, but programs to make the internet accessible to low-income people are full of holes. Yes, public libraries offer access, but relying on that is difficult. “Sometimes the library is not very near to everyone’s place. Maybe you have to walk during winter time,” said Ms. Mohamed, who does not have a car. “You can use a public computer but it’s only for a limited time, like 30 minutes.” The chief executive of Vaughan Public Libraries, Margie Singleton, said customers often sit outside and access WiFi in their cars after branches close.

Some library systems lend out WiFi hotspots, but Mississauga, where Ms. Mohamed lives, is only just about to launch a pilot project. The Toronto Public Library has 1,000 units available for six-month loans from specific branches, which is nowhere near enough. By TPL’s count, 80 per cent of hot spot borrowers have a household income of $30,000 or less.

Since 2013, Rogers has offered the Connected for Success program, which offers $10-monthly broadband access. But it’s only available to families in rent-subsidized non-profit housing, which leaves out the thousands on the waiting list to get into a Toronto Community Housing Corp. unit, as well as people like Ms. Mohamed, who squeeze themselves into the rental market.

This fall, the federal government is rolling out Connecting Families, a $10-monthly service that will likely see 220,000 Canadian households either get relief from their internet bills, or finally get internet at home. It’s being hailed as a victory by ACORN, a national organization of low- and middle-income Canadians, but only a partial one.

For five years, ACORN has been running its Internet for All campaign, and the 2016 ruling was a partial victory, too. Since then, the group has pushed itself into the discussions with the CRTC and telecom companies that resulted in Connecting Families. Donna Borden, co-chair of the group’s East York chapter, finds it a major flaw that telecoms can choose to opt in – or out. A voluntary program will leave big gaps in areas with low competition: Eastlink, which services the Atlantic provinces, isn’t participating and resellers such as TekSavvy have already said they’re not interested.

Another criticism is that only low-income families receiving the maximum Child Care Benefit are eligible, which means families that earn over $30,000 a year won’t quality. Nor will single people or couples, including those who might be students. “We’re going to keep up the fight,” Ms. Borden said.

Now that Ms. Mohamed is a pharmacist again, she’s hoping her monthly bills will become less onerous. She’s still working part-time as a pharmacist – picking up shifts here and there through a temp agency – but the pay is better, and with luck she’ll land a full-time gig soon. This school year, she wants her kids to have a few more things to enjoy.

“I usually try to not let them feel that there is something wrong going on or that I’m struggling that much,” she said, but she did prioritize paying for home internet before “some clothes that they are asking for.”

Neither of her kids has a cellphone yet but now that she’ll be making more money, they might start asking. “Maybe now I will have to consider this,” Ms. Mohamed laughs.

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