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PhD student wants to bridge Toronto Community Housing’s Digital Divide

Submitted on Tuesday, November 17, 2020

As a result of COVID-19, Michel Mersereau has found a lot more people suddenly interested in his doctoral research into the digital divide and how precarious internet access hurts low-income communities. Mersereau, who will soon defend his PhD at the Faculty of Information, has been appointed an official advisor to city councillors and staff looking to ensure that residents of Toronto Community Housing will have enough bandwidth to make it through the pandemic and beyond.

If things turn out as Mersereau hopes, community housing residents will all have good-quality internet service automatically included in their base rent. Mersereau presented a feasibility study proposal — which is backed by community stakeholders, many elected officials and city staff, and a federal MP — to the Tenants Committee of the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) last month. It won unanimous approval and now moves on to the next stage at the Governing Committee. If his plan eventually gets the go-ahead, the move would constitute the single largest direct public intervention in at-home, non-excludable internet service delivery in Canada, he says.

“Covid has been a blunt instrument for getting people to wake up,” says Mersereau. While there is still some resistance to a universal subsidy, “people who have typically been dismissive about internet access as necessary” are now much more receptive to the issue and understand the urgency.

Michel Mersereau with adorable dog

Michel Mersereau with his dog, Arthur Eddington

Mersereau is in the final stages of editing his dissertation, which looks at broadband internet access as a basic utility in households. The onsite data collection for his research was carried out in late 2018 and early 2019 when he drilled down and asked residents at three different TCHC residential facilities about how they manage their basic needs. They talked to Mersereau about different household practices, including education, healthcare, finances and nutrition so he could see what, if any, role access to broadband played.

“Most of the stuff with the school is online now,” said one single parent. “I can pay for my kid’s school trips and stuff like that, but the most important thing for us are the Google Docs and library reservations.”

Older residents told Mersereau they used the internet for everything from watching physiotherapy exercise videos to booking transport. “I log into the UHN (University Health Network) website every day to make sure I haven’t missed an appointment or mixed up the medication I’m supposed to take,” said one senior.

Another resident didn’t understand how people could get by without the internet. “Anything you need to do with Revenue Canada, applying for benefits and stuff, means you have to go online and connect to them through your bank, which means you need online banking,” the resident said.

For Mersereau, surveying and talking to residents gave him “a real sense of how valuable having access to the internet is and what happens when that service is interrupted.” His goal was to provide tangible, evidence-based research to help inform policy outcomes related to universal access. His doctoral research built on his earlier Master’s thesis, which explored the role of Internet-based technologies in supporting and sustaining the organizational practices of Toronto’s Native-Men’s-Residence (Na-Me-Res). Mersereau credits his advisor, Professor Leslie Shade, for suggesting that investigating broadband use in basic needs activities “would make for a great PhD thesis”.

As a result of his work in the field, as well as connections made advocating at City Hall for motorcycle safety, Mersereau had established relationships in the municipal bureaucracy, making it easier for him to get his proposal for TCHC to decision makers.

With 110,000 low-income residents, the TCHC is the second largest social housing provider in North America, right behind New York City. In the past, the city had looked at the possibility of deploying enhanced WiFi networks and delivering broadband internet on its own, both of which were judged too challenging and complex. Having TCHC assume a kind of intermediary status as the service provider, as Mersereau proposes, is a simpler and quicker solution. If accepted, it would have to go out for a competitive bid.

“The service will be there and residents will have access whether they choose to use it or not,” explains Mersereau. If accepted, it would function in the same way as Hydro and other utilities, which are included in the rent of 85% of TCH units. Households that want to retain their existing internet services would get a credit back on their base rent.

Mersereau hopes that the pandemic has finally made it clear that “subsidizing broadband is not paying for people to watch Netflix. It’s subsidizing their ability to send children to school and perform basic financial activities, and stopping them from becoming further impoverished,” he says.

Update: Michel Mersereau successfully defended his doctoral thesis, The Essential Internet: Locating Internet Contingent Practices & Activities at the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, on December 16.