In Finland, Australia and parts of the United Kingdom, Internet access has been declared a basic human right. But in Canada, the country that was ranked sixth in the 2011 Human Development Index, Internet is still a privilege. According to Statistics Canada, one fifth of the country’s population did not have Internet access in 2010.
Chebucto Community Net is a non-profit, registered charitable society that wants to change that statistic—and they began their work right on Dalhousie campus.
Andrew Wright is the office manager, technical support and the only staff member of the organization. “Here (in Canada), it’s like you got the money, you got the Internet. You don’t got the money, too bad, too sad,” says Wright.
He calls his organization the “Internet of last resort.”
Chebucto, which is run out of the Chase building on Studley campus, allows people in Nova Scotia to have Internet access for free or at a cheap rate. His target is the class of people who are left behind by commercial outfitters. “Typically, that’s senior citizens, people with disabilities, people with illnesses, especially people with terminal illnesses, and the working poor,” says Wright.
Wright himself learned about computers from Chebucto. When he had a “piece of crap” computer and couldn’t afford to replace it, Chebucto helped him repair it. “Now, it’s like I build my own computers. I can do anything to fix anybody else’s. People look at me like I have superpowers,” says Wright.
Wright has taken his superpowers to Occupy Nova Scotia.
“In their case they are saying it is the majority that is being disadvantaged. But still it’s people being left behind, people being left out. That’s congruent with our own organization’s goals,” says Wright.
Since OccupyNS began, Wright went down to the general assembly each day at the Grand Parade. He offered help and would listen to what was being said. He also publicizes different aspects of the movement on Chebucto’s Twitter feed and high traffic website.
Wright also says he has a completely selfish motive in supporting the movement: to publicize his own organization.
He says almost nobody knows Chebucto exists, despite being the second oldest Internet setup in Nova Scotia. “I hear all the time people going into the Killam Library looking for directions to find us and the Killam Library doesn’t know we exist,” says Wright.
Wright says it is becoming crucial for people to have access to the Internet. “People don’t long-distance phone call anymore. They email, they Skype, they instant message. If you are not a part of that you are left out….You are handicapped by lack of information.”
There are currently about 1,000 Community Net users. They can either pay $125 for year-round dial-up access, or use a free “text-based terminal emulator” such as Windows HyperTerminal or PuTTY. There is no format to it, just literally words on a screen.
But it gets people online.
The organization’s two biggest expenses are the phone lines for people to dial in on and Wright’s salary, which he describes as full-time hours for a part-time wage.
Wright types on his keyboard looking at a flat screen LG computer. It is his personal computer, and it was his present to himself a few years back.
It is no longer new, but the shiny black screen still stands out in Wright’s dark, first floor office in the Chase Building. The office is the size of a big closet, but it is donated space and Wright says he’s grateful.
Wright’s support has been limited. He says commercial providers find it uneconomical to help people who need “hand-holding” to get online.
He says he has approached the federal, provincial and municipal government, who have applauded his hard work, but that’s not enough: Chebucto Community Net needs more money.
“Frankly, all the research and development we’ve done on the subject is me financing it out of my own pocket,” says Wright. “With more (money), we could do more. There is very much a need for a low-cost high-speed access.”
He says there are people who could be using the service if only they knew about it. “If people don’t know we are here, then sooner or later we won’t be.”