Wellington County closing digital divide through ‘get connected’ initiative

GUELPH – As Vince Connolly taps the screen of his new smartphone, a robotic female-sounding voice announces his screen choice.

As he lowers an ear to the phone, he can’t quite make out what the synthetic voice that’s part of the phone’s accessibility features is telling him.

Laurie Godreau, Connolly Caseworker, demonstrates how to adjust the volume buttons on the Android-based Alcatel 1B smartphone.

“That’s better, we got it,” Godreau says to Connolly, who has a big smile on his face.

Connolly, a 61-year-old Ontario Works recipient who lives in a homeless shelter, is one of Ontario Works’ 200 customers and new immigrants who received a phone with a two-year talk and text plan, all free-fee from the county that is the administrator of social services for both Guelph and the county.

The provided phone and plan, which will cost around $300 in total over two years, is part of the district’s effort to bring digital justice to those who need it most — often people living with homelessness and sometimes with substance abuse problems have to fight.

The free setup means there’s one less expense siphoning off Connolly’s precious $343 monthly income in a country that claims some of the most expensive cell phone plans in the world.

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In 2021, the average call and text tariff in Canada was valued at $26.70, compared to $6.78 (Canadian dollars) in France, but under nearly $50 in the US, according to an annual telecom services price comparison report.

By today’s standards, the Alcatel phone is basic, but functional enough to do whatever Connolly needs.

Connolly says he’s like a “caveman being handed a Ferrari” — and is now just a few taps away from accessing the three people whose phone numbers are programmed: a friend, a doctor and his case worker.

Stuart Beumer, director of Wellington Ontario Works, says paying a phone or internet bill isn’t exactly high on the priority list for those trying to support themselves and eat on minimal income.

The maximum amount a single person can receive from Ontario Works is $733 per month, including basic needs and housing costs. That adds a few hundred more if there are dependents.

At a time when participating in society depends on a reliable phone and internet connection, those without connectivity are left behind.

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The rapid online shift of services during the pandemic has only exacerbated barriers to accessing digitally driven social, educational, financial and medical services, highlighting the increasing importance of social service providers in tackling digital inequality deploy.

“I think without that kind of support, those families, those individuals, are going to continue to struggle to access the services that they need and for us to work with,” Beumer said.

He cited a recent Rogers service outage that left a quarter of Canadians unable to call 911 as an example of what it’s like to be disconnected in 2022.

“Imagine, this is your everyday life,” remarked Beumer. “I think we need to increasingly think about digital access as a public utility.”

Many of the county’s clients, Beumer said, did not have cellphones — “particularly those who often have more complex health needs or perhaps are homeless or had housing issues” — making communication between caseworkers and clients difficult.

The county’s response to improving digital equity within its grassroots is the Get Connected initiative. And it’s not just mobile connectivity that the county is focused on.

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In addition to the phones, the county also bought and made available 50 Chromebook laptops (Google-powered) and 35 internet hotspots — all for customers on one-month loans.

To date, hundreds of loans have been made between all devices.

“We hear from customers that it has really helped them access services, stay connected with family, stay connected with the support they need and help them find a home or job to be found,” said Beumer.

To support this opinion, district staff are now working on a customer impact assessment using surveys provided to customers by caseworkers and comparison staff.

The survey period closes at the end of the month and Beumer hopes to reverse the results in a November report to the country’s Social Affairs Committee.

As for Connolly, his new cellphone replaces the old payphones he once relied on, giving him peace of mind knowing that help and resources are just a few voice-activated touches away.

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