Dateline: Tuesday, April 03, 2007
by Marita Moll
After years of dwindling funding, from $25 million in 2005 to $8.8 million in 2006, the federal government's well-established digital divide initiative — the Community Access Program (CAP) is on life support. CAP co-ordinators and volunteers waited in vain for some sign in the recent budget that "Canada's New Government" was prepared to stabilize their minimal funding levels. Silence was all they heard beyond the whoosh of public servants quickly disappearing behind the closest firewall. Thousands of these sites, rural and urban, are now stranded in policy limbo wondering what happened to a 10-year-old national policy priority to connect all Canadians to modern communications tools. Funding ran out on April 1st. But having been left stranded like this before, they are still waiting and hoping.
In a pre-budget press release, the Pacific Community Networks Association pointed out that governments around the world are investing in public internet for communities using a vision and model originally developed in Canada. "As the rest of the world continues to recognize the economic benefits gained by investing in community internet, successive Canadian governments have slowly suffocated CAP by reducing its funding. .... CAP is a successful program with a proven economic and social impact. It cuts across nearly every community in Canada." In fact, for years, the government of the day trotted out this program at every international event available. And no wonder — all the numbers show that it has been an impressive success.
There are more CAP centres in Canada than there are Tim Horton's.
Since its inception in 1994, on shoestring budgets and with the help of thousands of volunteers, CAP sites have assisted millions of citizens in all provinces and territories to participate fully in the digital world — to look for jobs, contact government agencies, stay connected to family and friends in different regions and countries and generally become familiar with computer technologies.
"If the funding to our CAP site is cut, the individuals who don't own a computer will be left at a severe disadvantage. In today's world it is imperative that a person have access to a computer and the internet," writes a CAP site administrator in northern BC, on the CAP and Community ICT blog set up to discuss this issue.
"For example, we have some elderly people who have no idea how to use the computer but want to keep in touch with grandchildren; we help them navigate their way around e-mail."
CAP has been good value for money. Federal sources have estimated that there is a 20/80 split in the investments in these sites with the 80 percent representing money and resources leveraged within the community itself. A 2001 GPI Atlantic survey of rural CAP sites in British Columbia indicated that the benefits extend far beyond the provision of internet access and computer skills training. "CAP sites play an important role in strengthening rural communities, enhancing communication and reducing isolation, facilitating inclusion of youth, seniors and disadvantaged groups, promoting equity and providing opportunities for education, employment and local learning." It also showed that CAP volunteers contribute an estimated 630,000 hours of voluntary time each year to British Columbia's rural CAP sites. "These volunteer hours are worth $9.5 million annually and are the equivalent of 330 full-time jobs," says the survey report.
Not supporting a program like this seems akin to starving the goose that laid the golden eggs. Yet there's a real risk that Industry Canada's 10 year $600 million investment in the "Connecting Canadians Agenda" will soon be lost forever. CAP advocates have delved into the intricacies of the "estimates" posted on Industry Canada's website and discovered that $9.9 million has been set aside for this program in 2007-2008. But the same document says that the government is presently "reviewing the future of the program." Last week, the word from Industry Canada about the future of this project is that "the federal government is committed to CAP and there will be an announcement shortly." Meanwhile, thousands of committed workers hold their collective breaths wondering why they can't be accorded the courtesy of a direct and timely response from their government on this issue. "We have organizations that need to make plans," says one co-ordinator, " — organizations that answer to boards of directors."
Without these community services in place, who will bridge the digital divide? If progressive Canadian politicians and policy makers want to find out who is bridging it now, they should visit their closest CAP site. They wouldn't have to travel too far. There are more of these sites in Canada than there are Tim Horton's outlets. There is no registration fee and all services are usually free. There might even be coffee — although that may require a donation.
Marita Moll is a co-investigator with the Canadian Research Alliance for Community Innovation and Networking (CRACIN) and a member of Telecommunities Canada, an alliance of CAP and other community networking initiatives.
URL 1: www.cracin.ca
URL 2: tc.ca
URL 3: ict-cap.blogspot.com