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Disconnected: Life Without Wireless

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Patrick Lux/Getty
Patrick Lux/Getty

Last time, we talked about how being tech savvy can save you lots of money.

This time, let's look at the growing requirement to be tech savvy simply to earn a living.

Since you're reading this, you're in the majority of Canadians who use the Internet, likely with broadband access, so you're good. But you may know a friend, a relative or a neighbor who is part of a still large minority of Canadians who don't use the Internet. You may want to print this off for them, especially if they are still in their working years and struggling to earn a good wage.

In Canada today, more than one-quarter of homes still do not have broadband, according to the CRTC's latest Communications Monitoring Report from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. And almost all of these Canadians are choosing not to have it, often because of cost. But the infrastructure is there and available for a price.

"Virtually all Canadian households had access to broadband Internet services of at least 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps), delivered by landline, mobile (HSPA+ and LTE) and satellite facilities," concludes the CRTC.

Choosing not to have broadband is significant for many reasons, especially because many employers today are posting job openings online and demanding applicants upload resumes and be available for first interviews via Skype. If you're fishing for a job, you have to go where the fish are and, in this case, about a quarter of Canadians don't have a broadband line in the water.

Indeed, more than 80 per cent of Fortune 500 companies only post job openings online, said Julius Genachowski, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission chairman in a recent speech in Washington. Though he's talking about the U.S., the same applies to Canada.

"Broadband is the central platform for economic growth, information, and opportunity in the 21st century," he said. "Over half of today's jobs require technology skills, and nearly 80 per cent of jobs in the next decade are projected to require digital skills."

And yet, not surprising, the digital divide is widest in lower income brackets. Anecdotally, that makes sense even with computers in the hundreds of dollars now instead of the thousands of dollars not that long ago.

A University of Western Ontario researcher, and PhD candidate in sociology, has come up with hard data proving that income and education impact digital access.

And Michael Haight's work points to even tougher times ahead for Canadians on the margins -- unless they work hard to pick up digital skills.

In this YouTube presentation about his Masters thesis "Revisiting the Digital Divide", Haight, along with his teaching advisor, Dr. Anabel Quan-Haase, reveal findings from analyzing the 2010 Canadian Internet Use Survey by Statistics Canada.

Among the data, Haight found that of people who earn $41,000 a year or less, fully one-third had not been on the Internet the previous year. One in three people in the lower income brackets simply don't use the Internet for shopping, working, entertainment or anything else. Haight also found a direct correlation between education and Internet use.

And, according to the Internet Use Survey itself, things get even worse for the lowest income levels. In households below $30,000 per year, almost half do not have access to the Internet.

The fact is, we cannot turn back the digital clock. Our economy -- and our livelihoods -- are increasingly tied to technology and understanding how to maximize our use of it. As Genachowski says: four out of five jobs within the next decade will require digital skills. And if one-third of lower-income Canadians don't even use the Internet, they are going to fall further and further behind.

Which makes Industry Canada's decision last year to cut funding to the Community Access Program, which provides free Internet access at libraries and community centres across Canada, all the more perplexing.

Ottawa was sending $4,000 (or about $13 million in total) a year to these Internet locales to help people who can't afford their own access at home. That seems like a wise use of money -- and $4,000 is probably less than your average Senator spends on taxpayer-funded trips.

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