Toronto joins forces with tech firm to provide free Wi-Fi to low-income families in 2 buildings


About 2,000 low income residents who live in two buildings in Toronto are now getting free internet access thanks to a partnership between the city and technology company Cisco Canada.

The buildings at 200 and 210 Woolner Avenue in Toronto’s Rockcliffe-Smythe community are the first two locations to get free WiFi as part of a program called Digital Canopy.

By the end of 2020, the city and Cisco Canada officials say they hope to have set up free Wi-Fi hotspots in 25 locations. All locations will have free Wi-Fi for up to a year, which means the program has the potential to connect 6,600 units and about 13,000 Toronto residents. Bell Canada is the internet provider.

Wayne Cuervo, director of Cisco Canada’s Toronto Innovation Centre, said the company is donating $1 million worth of technology and services. The money includes hardware and technological support. 

Cisco Canada approached the city with the idea to address inequities made clear by the novel coronavirus, he said.

“The pandemic really exposed the gap between the people that have reliable and consistent Internet and those that don’t,” Cuervo said.

Wayne Cuervo, director of Cisco Canada’s Toronto Innovation Centre, says the company is donating $1 million worth of technology and services to ensure low-income residents have internet access. (CBC)

The closure of public spaces, including community centres and libraries, means people lost access to places and sources of Internet connectivity. Cisco Canada wanted to help in some way, he said. 

Consistent, reliable internet access is key, company says

Cuervo said the idea for free Wi-Fi spots for low-income people, which was a grassroots initiative, quickly became a “passion project,” he said.

“We’re obviously very excited about connecting everyone to the internet, especially at a time like this when the pandemic elevated the disparity and some of the economic barriers that people face to consistent and reliable internet,” Cuervo said. 

“I think equitable access is something that needs to continue.”

As for the two buildings involved in the launch of the program, they are within an area underserved by Internet access and availability, he said.

Cuervo said internet access “helps to level the playing field” in terms of advantages and disadvantages and is “one of the greatest enablers” in society today.

Free Wi-Fi is useful for students when it comes to online learning, employees when it comes to remote work, and families when it comes to accessing medical information and social supports, among other things, and staying connected with loved ones, he added.

Aderonke Akande, the city’s manager of tower and neighbourhood revitalization unit, says the city looked at apartment buildings with a high percentage of low-income residents, household size, literacy levels, existing infrastructure and availability of other programs. (Fariha Husain)

Service in time of COVID-19 is vital, city says

Aderonke Akande, the city’s manager of tower and neighbourhood revitalization unit within the social development, finance and administration division, said the two buildings were chosen through a process. The city looked at apartment buildings with a high percentage of low-income residents and it looked at household size, literacy levels, existing infrastructure and availability of other programs. 

While the two buildings with the private landlords get the free hotspot, the Toronto Community Housing building next door does not. Akande said a Rogers program, called Connected for Success, offers internet access at discounted rates to residents in TCH buildings.

The program will make a difference given that online learning is now a component of the school system, particularly at higher levels due to COVID-19, Akande said.

“It’s wonderful that the city is able to move forward with partners like Cisco to bring in such a vital service to its residents and make that available,” Akande said.

“It’s critical. It’s a such a vital time.” 

Akande said the city put up posters in various languages in common areas of the two buildings to notify residents. The program will be evaluated at the end of the year to determine if it will continue.

Cisco says the free hookup was meant to help during the pandemic but it could be extended.

Some residents excited about free Wi-Fi

Jake Thibault, a resident, said he was excited to learn his building now has free internet. 

“Wi-Fi, I know that would be pretty neat to have that thing. Everybody else is having a good time with it. So I want to try too!” 

Subrina Woods, another resident, said she already pays for internet access.

“I’ll keep mine because it’s just for a year and then you have to go back. You don’t want to get comfortable and then when the year finishes you have to switch back. By then, the price for what you used to pay probably went up.”

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