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Bridging the digital divide, one building at the time

Chebucto Community Net provides affordable internet access where others only think of profit

by Robert Devet

Installing WiFi in one of the two manors.  Chebucto Community Net offers high speed internet to its low income residents at affordable rates. Photo CCN
Installing WiFi in one of the two manors. Chebucto Community Net offers high speed internet to its low income residents at affordable rates. Photo CCN
Boardroom and office of Chebucto Community Net, somewhere in a Dalhousie University basement.  Eastlink considers Chebucto Community Net a competitor... Photo CCN
Boardroom and office of Chebucto Community Net, somewhere in a Dalhousie University basement. Eastlink considers Chebucto Community Net a competitor... Photo CCN

K'JIPUKTUK, HALIFAX - Last year, a group of people associated with a non-profit internet provider did something pretty amazing.

They wired two buildings for low-income seniors in Halifax for WIFI, hooked it all up to a universities-run network, and now provide internet access to the residents at much lower rates than we are used to paying here in Nova Scotia.

Andrew Wright is the office manager of the Chebucto Community Net, the volunteer-run internet service provider that spearheaded the activities.

“We did something historic,” says Wright. “The digital divide in Halifax has been an unchanging static thing for decades, and we broke through that, and we did it on our own.”

The term digital divide was coined to indicate the gap between people who have access to information through internet technologies and those who don't.

Wealthy people have no problem getting online. The latest Stats Canada numbers show that 94 per cent of Nova Scotians earning more than $87,000 per year have internet access.

But access drops to 55 per cent for people who earn less than $30,000.

If you are poor and old the numbers go down even more. Only 25 per cent of low-income seniors are able to log onto the internet.

That's why the Chebucto Community Net decided to concentrate on buildings for low-income seniors and chose the Joseph Howe Manor and the H.P. MacKeen Manor as its first candidates.

The $50 or so a month that Aliant and Eastlink charge for high-speed internet is well out of reach for residents at the two housing developments. Chebucto Community Net now provides the same service to the residents for just $10 per month.

It took substantial personal sacrifices by the people who keep Chebucto going to make it so. They did all the work themselves. And they paid for the hardware out of their own pockets, $19,000 in all.

Wright lead the charge. “I had put some money away for a car for a long time, and I just said, ah, I don't need a car.”

Some of the board members followed Wright's example.

“And we are not Rockefellers, we are just regular folks,” says Wright. “So that $1,000 or more somebody donated is like the house repair postponed, the vacation we're not taking, in my case the car I am not buying.”

The hope was that once the first implementations were demonstrated to be successful, politicians would realize the potential and support further expansions.

But this did not happen. The CBC and talk radio devoted a bit of time to it, the Community Herald ran a story, and that was it. Municipal and provincial politicians didn't bite.

Wright says that Aliant and Eastlink are not doing anything to help either.

“We explained that we were trying to help poor Nova Scotians. Well, Eastlink told us to our face that they consider us competition. Imagine, we are a $50,000 per year organization, I don't even draw a full salary,” says an astonished Wright.

Wright has even less time for Aliant. “They have had twenty years of running the show entirely by themselves. They haven't done anything for poor people in twenty years, prices have not dropped even as the technology has matured and cost has decreased.”

Lack of support is not slowing down Chebucto Community Net. Ultimately they would like to see a public fibre optic network, run as a public service, much like we run our water facilities and infrastructure. And they would like the municipality to become much more active in providing wireless access to its citizens.

But they know full well that that is not likely to happen soon. They are now trying to find money to install WiFi in the Gordon B. Eisnor Manor, yet another building for low income pensioners.

“We're basically taking on the manors one at the time,” Wright concludes. “Nobody is helping us, nobody is cheering for us, nobody is doing anything. I'd like to see Nova Scotians wake up and get their stuff together.”

 

Chebucto Community Net also provides unlimited 56K dial up access to the Internet for $10 per month, with special pricing for families and non-profit organizations. Text-based only access to email and file storage is free for non-members. A small fee gets you membership in the Chebucto Community Net Society . Membership gives you a vote in how Chebucto is run and offers other benefits as well. Check it out!

Follow Robert Devet on Twitter @DevetRobert

 


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