Rogers Bridges Digital Divide

TORONTO -- Following the lead of major U.S. MSOs, Rogers Communications is taking steps to bridge Canada's growing digital divide. Rogers announced this week that it will start offering low-cost Internet access to residents of publicly subsidized housing in Toronto, the cable company's home base. Under the pilot broadband program, dubbed Connected for Success, qualified residents of Toronto Community Housing (TCH) will be able to receive downstream speeds of up to 3 Mbit/s and up to 30 GB of usage allowance for C$9.95 a month. In addition, eligible TCH residents will be able to buy computers for C$150 through Rogers' deals with Microsoft Canada and Compugen. The computers will come pre-loaded with complementary software and participants will receive free special access to technical support. Speaking at the Canadian Telecom Summit here earlier this week, Rob Bruce, president of communications for Rogers, said the MSO will roll out the pilot program to TCH residents during the summer. After that, he said, the company hopes to extend the program to other parts of its Ontario and Atlantic Canada service footprint and encourage other broadband providers to do the same throughout the rest of the nation. "And as the world becomes more mobile, we'll look at wireless Internet opportunities too," Bruce said. "But it's premature to talk about that today." Besides being one of the two largest cable operators in Canada, Rogers is also the nation's biggest wireless provider. TCH is Canada's largest affordable housing provider with 58,000 units and about 170,000 residents. Bruce noted that just 20% of its low-income families have Internet access in their homes today, as opposed to 80% of all Canadian households. "We need to invest in and develop our youth to ensure they're digitally ready, to ensure that Canada is digitally ready," Bruce said. "We need to bridge the digital divide." Rogers officials say they expect roughly one-third of TCH residents to qualify for the program, which is the first of its kind in Canada. TCH officials will identify the eligible households, using such criteria as which residents receive rent subsidies. The Rogers pilot program is based on a similar program that the cable industry has developed in the U.S. Under the prodding of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a number of major U.S. MSOs created Connect2Compete in late 2011 to extend broadband service to low-income families who can't afford to pay the standard $35 to $45 monthly charges. Under the U.S. program, qualified residents also pay $9.95 a month for service and can buy computers and tech support for a minimal price. Eligibility for the program is based on which households have children participating in the federally subsidized school lunch program. Rogers has also taken other recent steps to close the digital divide. Last year the MSO launched the Rogers Youth Fund and Tech Essentials, programs to develop digital literacy and technology skills among young Canadians. The company has also started opening up technology centers in boys and girls clubs in major cities across Canada. "It's not just about access," Bruce said. "It's also about digital skills." — Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading
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