Two community housing buildings in Vanier will soon have free Wi-Fi in their common areas, thanks to a pilot project aiming to bridge the existing digital divide in urban neighbourhoods.
Starting in the fall, high-quality Wi-Fi will be available in the downstairs lounge and laundry rooms at 251 and 255 Donald St.
The project is a joint effort between Ottawa Community Housing, not-for-profit internet provider National Capital FreeNet, Hiboo Networks and the Canadian Internet Registration Authority.
It's very hard to live a full, healthy, connected life in Canada without having access to the Internet. - Brian Gilligan, Ottawa Community Housing
It marks a first for Ottawa Community Housing, said Brian Gilligan, the corporation's chief officer responsible for community and tenant support. OCH has been working with National Capital FreeNet for the past six to seven years to prepare for this, he added.
"I think it's important to understand that access to the internet is now like a public utility. It's like getting access to water or electricity or heat," he said.
People use the internet for everything from connecting socially to accessing employment, education or even health-care providers.
"It's very hard to live a full, healthy, connected life in Canada without having access to the internet," Gilligan added.
And although tenants may have smartphones, they're not always able to afford internet services, he said. That's where the pilot project comes in.
Gaps in internet access remain in urban areas
Internet accessibility has long been a challenge in rural, remote and Indigenous communities, said Shelley Robinson, executive director of National Capital FreeNet.
But it persists in the urban context, too.
"If you looked at the availability of speeds in Ottawa, it looks like everyone has access to very high speeds. But when people can't afford access to the Internet, it's effectively the same as if they don't have the infrastructure," she said.
The free community Wi-Fi pilot project will roll out in the fall at these two buildings on Donald Street. The plan is to expand to other locations across the city over the next five years. (Submitted by National Capital FreeNet)
Based on a survey it conducted with OCH tenants during the pandemic in 2020, National Capital FreeNet found 23 per cent of those surveyed didn't have home internet.
"During the pandemic, when you couldn't access Wi-Fi at the library or at coffee shops, you just kind of were out of luck." she said.
And although people are now able to access Wi-Fi in public spaces again, the findings highlight a broader issue.
"It means that they're honestly being completely excluded largely from so many things," she said.
Aim is to 'patchwork it' around neighbourhood
Robinson said providing the free connection will help during workshops in the building, including tax clinics and planned hands-on digital literacy workshops.
The free Wi-Fi could also mean tenants working in the community garden or spending time outside between the two Donald Street buildings will have access to the internet. (Submitted by National Capital FreeNet)
But being able to access high-speed internet in a common area of the building can also give people the opportunity to sit in a public space with friends to watch videos or stream music.
"Yes, it's about an essential service, and it's also about the ability to stay in touch and build community," she said.
There are plans in place to extend the internet connection to at least 10 other community organizations nearby.
"You can make a Wi-Fi phone call, you could be texting people even if you don't have a data plan, all of those things become available to you. And so we want to patchwork it around the whole neighborhood," she said.
The first phase of the pilot is expected to be up and running in the fall, and the hope is to expand to other parts of the city over the next five years.