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An Ecology of Public Internet Access:
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 17 Numbers 1 & 2, 2007


Alison Powell
Concordia University

Abstract: This paper explores public internet access in an inner-city community with many “digital divide” characteristics. Using a qualitative methodology attentive to social, technical, and geographic contexts, the paper describes how internet access is integrated into a communicative ecology: specifically, how internet access is identified by residents; what it affords; and its potential for effective use. In addition, it argues that the concept of “universal access” to internet infrastructures must be refined to consider “contextual access” that is, access provided that takes into account cultural, geographic, and demographic factors. Finally, at the level of practice, the paper recommends striking a balance between “universal” and “contextual” internet access in an urban area so that internet access becomes linked with other cultural services, and is integrated into local contexts of use.


Discussions about the digital divide have become a significant part of policy discourses about the influence of information and communication technologies (ICTs) on community, social, and economic development. The commonly accepted discourse, first used by the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the 1990s (NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration), 2000), places communities on one side or another of a divide based on their demographic characteristics and on the level of access to computer services. This access is often defined as the number of households having home internet access (see Rideout, 2003a). As these investigations suggest, and as this paper reiterates, home connectivity to the internet is not the only measure of ICT adoption. Furthermore, public access creates a different set of relationships in a communicative ecology than does home access: the internet occupies a different location in space and time, and thus creates relationships with a different set of actors. This paper, which is part of an ongoing exploration of an inner city Toronto, Canada, neighbourhood bearing many digital divide characteristics, maps relationships between different public access points. It attempts to describe an internet ecology within the larger communicative ecology that contains the relationships residents establish with one another through the mediation of different types of media (see Altheide, 1995; Taachi, Slater and Hearn, 2003). The paper reports on preliminary use of an ethnographic methodology that describes the process of locating public internet cafés, the type of affordances they provide, and the experiences of users making effective use of public internet access points. This methodology highlights the importance of location as a factor in mobilizing all of these resources, and as an influence upon effective use, defined as “the capacity and opportunity to successfully integrate ICTs into the accomplishment of self or collaboratively identified goals.” (Gurstein, 2003). The empirical section of this paper compares two types of public internet access points in an inner-city neighbourhood, arguing that their locations, the services they offer, and the experience of their clients establish relationships between them and the neighbourhood – and constitute an internet ecology within the local communicative ecology.

The paper examines two types of public internet access points: pay-for-service internet cafés and government-funded, free-of-charge service funded through the Canadian government’s Community Access Program (CAP), a funding program intended to provide public internet access in digital divide communities. The results of these funding programs have been evaluated by Moll and Shade (2001), Shade and Decheif (2004), Clement, Gurstein, and Longford (2004), and Werbin (2006). Rideout (2003b) has also assessed public access in Canada. However, this work has so far not specifically considered the relationship between government access programs and the other kinds of internet access available in some digital divide communities. By exploring internet access as part of an ecology rather than through an assessment of the presence or absence of computing or internet devices, this paper reveals that the contexts for public internet access may be as important as the access itself.

The Everyday Internet Project

This paper is part of the Everyday Internet Project – a research project hosted at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information Studies that uses qualitative methods to investigate the contexts of ICT access and use in an inner-city neighbourhood in Toronto, Canada. Toronto is the largest city in the country, and one of the most diverse in the world, with immigrant populations from over forty countries. Forty-eight per cent of Toronto residents are visible minorities (Statistics Canada, 2001c). With a metropolitan population of 2.4 million in 2001 but estimated at five million in 2006, the city is growing and diverse. The Everyday Internet Project, active from 2002 to 2004, explored computing and internet use in a neighbourhood where a third-generation Portuguese immigrant population and new arrivals from South and East Asia cohabit with other working-class with a social service agency in the area called St. Christopher House. This agency provides a wide range of services Canadians. With a particular interest in how internet access becomes “everyday” for youth, recent immigrants, and older people, the project has had a longstanding research relationship from a senior’s drop-in centre to language classes. While internet connectivity and training are among these services, they are not the primary focus of the agency. The internet access point and its teaching and learning programs provide additional services to members who are already involved in other projects at the centre. St. Christopher House also manages other government-funded internet access points in the neighbourhood. These public sites exist in close proximity to other locations where internet access is available for pay.

From a “device” perspective, where access to the internet is considered an issue of digital or physical resources, the availability of internet access in the neighbourhood suggests that universal access has been achieved, since computers are visible in many public places. However, St. Christopher House’s approach to providing their clients with ICT access is unique because of the way it focuses on integrating internet access and training into the context of its other services. As an example of a contextual approach to providing internet access, this element invites a comparison to other public internet access points, particularly pay-for-service locations, that provide more visible internet access, but without the same cultural context. These two visions of public access: the universal or visible and the contextual or embedded, need not necessarily be perceived as being oppositional. From an ecological perspective each occupies a separate niche, even within the same local area, and each provides a separate set of affordances that permit different kinds of relationships between area residents and information technologies. Within the ecology of the neighbourhood, how are these two types of access located, embedded into local knowledge and practice? Furthermore, how are they appropriated as ways of making effective use of ICTs in a digital divide community?

Discourses of the Digital Divide in Canada

Worldwide, governments have had a continued interest in providing their citizens with access to new technologies. This interest becomes visible in policy and academic literature through discussions of universal access. In Canada, universal access has been a heated area of debate, with researchers arguing for more complete access not just to carriage but to content and, ideally, to governance (Clement, Moll, and Shade, 1998; Clement and Shade, 2000). Subsidized access in Canada has been funded under the Connecting Canadians initiative, which was originally launched to achieve the Government of Canada’s goal of providing all Canadians with internet connectivity by 2004 and “make Canada the most connected nation in the world,” although current government publications now avoid mention of this original objective. While funding provided by this initiative supported the connection of rural and remote areas of the country to internet services, subsequent government programs, including the Community Access Project (CAP) supported the provision of free public internet access within Canada’s urban areas (Government of Canada, 2003). Government funding programs seem to assume that connectivity in public is a precursor to, and poorer cousin of, home connectivity. This assumption ignores the particular context that public internet connectivity provides, and fails to take into account the possible benefits of public connectivity. According to the last available data, 64% of Canadian households have at least one person who goes online from home daily (Statistics Canada, 2003), but public internet access continues to be used by around 6% of Canadians, double the number of people than in the United States (Statistics Canada, 2002). Statistics Canada data also show that internet access in locations outside home and work (including libraries, educational institutions and other locations) continues to increase in step with overall internet usage (Statistics Canada, 2003b). Access to the internet at work has also risen, but many people using public internet access may be out of the workforce or employed in jobs not providing internet access.

Perspectives on Public Internet Access

Thus, in Canada at least, public access to the internet continues to rise. Research suggests that this type of access can be an important part of both beginning and continuing internet practice. Liff et al.’s research suggests that visitors to public “e-gateway” sites in the UK, the US and Finland expanded their knowledge of ICT services and practices (Liff, 1998). Mark, Cornebise and Wall (1997) report that “the informal, learner-centred atmosphere” at community technology centres was important in helping new computer users feel comfortable.  Previous research conducted by the Everyday Internet Project argues that public internet access points provide benefits, such as “privacy-in-public” and the ability to get skilled help (Clement, Aspinall, Viseu, and Kennedy, 2003; Clement, Aspinall, Viseu, and Suchman, 2002). Other ethnographic studies have examined particular public internet access sites, both free and pay-for-service, with an eye towards the social interactions they facilitate. Wakeford’s (1999) studies have examined gender and local culture as they have been made visible at internet cafés. Laegran’s work has examined social contexts for internet cafés and other “technospaces” (2002, and different perceptions of internet spaces (Laegran and Stewart, 2003). Holligan’s photographic study of internet access environments contextualizes the locations of internet access and their relationship to one another in the settings in which they are used (Holligan, 2003).

Implicit in discussions of public internet access are questions about the difference between subsidized access and pay-for-service access. Balka and Peterson’s discussion of their young subjects’ game-playing and social activities at the public library suggests that these activities were perhaps not appropriate in a public place (Balka and Peterson, 2002. More explicitly, Selwyn argues that people using public internet access sites are not necessarily those who policy-makers intended to serve, and are often the same people using fee-for-service internet cafés (Selwyn, 2003). These studies imply that there is no significant difference between pay-for-service internet cafés and public, government-supported, computer service centres. This assumption has meant that much existing research in public computing has focused on the provision of access to ICT devices as opposed to an analysis of the integration of these devices into everyday practices and effective uses. However, in the past several years, more empirical research has begun to focus on these social, spatial, and cultural relations.

This paper contributes to this strand of literature by introducing the concept of an internet access ecology: that is, a part of a communicative ecology grounded in a specific space and time where different internet contexts are made available. Previous work in this area includes Miller and Slater’s (2001) ethnography of the internet in Trinidad, Selwyn’s (2003) work mentioned above, as well as Warschauer’s (2003) work on conceptualizing access. More recently, Haseloff (2005) has argued that in India, visitors use cybercafés for a variety of reasons, including as a means to learn about technology. Focusing specifically on public internet access in an area where access is relatively plentiful, the ecology explored in this paper extends this previous work, with a sensitivity to local experience in space and time. It sketches out some of the possible temporal and spatial relationships that influence the process of locating different locations for internet access evaluates what kind of affordances are made available, and how these might encourage effective use.

Research Design: Describing an Ecology Using Ethnography

This paper uses an ethnographic approach to describe interrelationships between individuals, groups, and technical configurations spatially and temporally. Using ethnography to describe and understand very specific urban contexts has a long tradition, beginning with Robert Park and his students at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s. Park assumed that the city naturally supported a variety of different behaviours, value systems, and contrasting worldviews (1952; 1967). He called the interrelationship of these elements “human ecology,” and based his research within “natural areas” – so-called slums or ghettos which he claimed “maintain more or less alien and exotic cultures” (Park, 1952: 196). Park’s student Louis Wirth argued that social relationships in such areas were ordered around “cultural centres” – physical locations where people, economies and social relationships were co-constructed (Wirth, 1945; Bulmer, 1984). Despite the social determinism that marked Park and Wirth’s work, their situated approaches and attention to place are worth revisiting, with a sensitivity to the heterogeneity, instability, and complexity of “forms of life” in specific places. Yet as Altheide (1995) points out, these “natural” human relationships are increasingly interwoven with forms and formats of mediated communication. Thus, understanding them thus requires theorizing a “communicative ecology” where these forms, formats (and technologies) are included in the ecology. As Altheide points out, an “ecology implies relationships related through process and interaction ... a spatial and relational basis for a subject matter” (1995: 10). The technological changes involved in this relationship must also be viewed non-deterministically. The social constructivist tradition within science and technology studies holds not only that the meaning and use of technologies are shaped by the people who design and use them (Bijker, Hughes, & Pinch et al., 1987) but also that technology and social practice are continually, mutually constituted (MacKenzie and Wacjman, 1999). Combining a social constructivist approach with an ecological sensitivity permits an exploration of the dynamic relationship between communication technology and social and cultural life.

Describing such an “ecology” permits an examination in closer detail of the relationships urban dwellers can have with the “cultural centres” available in their local area. Whereas Wirth thought of “cultural centres” in physical terms, we might begin to think of them more generally as sites of interaction. This interaction could be mediated by a range of devices and forms of communication, and it is not the presence or absence of these forms, but their interaction that is important. For this reason, conceptualizing the digital divide as merely the absence of computing or internet resources is problematic. In urban areas in developed countries, access to ICT carriage infrastructure is rarely difficult. However, people may find it more difficult to construct the social networks and specialized knowledge that Clement and Shade consider to be essential parts of the “rainbow” of internet access (see Figure 1) (Clement and Shade, 2000).

Figure 1. The “rainbow” of internet access

This specialized knowledge is often found, along with specialized software and hardware, at public internet access points. Examining how public ICT access is made available, visible, and effective, permits an understanding of how and in what context residents can gain access to specialized equipment and knowledge. A viewpoint like this moves away from seeing ICTs as universally applicable devices, and begins to connect the idea of a communicative ecology where effective environments are constructed through everyday practice (Altheide, 1995). Social constructivist perspectives on the co-construction of technology and social forms also describe the integration of technological forms and social practices. Warschauer (2003) and Clement and Shade (2000) conceptualize these relationships as being part of an interplay of different sets of resources. This sociotechnical, interactionist perspective might favour thinking of internet access policies in contextual terms, in addition to “universal access” defined only as the presence of certain technical devices.

Cultural Centres and the Context of Internet Access

If “universal access” is understood to be access provided freely, visibly, and uniformly throughout a community (as is basic telephone service in much of Canada), could there be such a thing as “contextual access?” Wirth’s (1938) desire to understand people’s relationships to cultural centres provides some clues to how one might understand the “context” or “culture” of internet use. Wirth’s idea of a cultural centre was conventional – a library, opera house, or other location at which cultural products might be consumed. However, the notion of  cultural centre might also encompass other types of organizations, such as settlement houses, drop-in centres, or even local cafés, as it does in the neighbourhood under study. Certainly, a social service agency such as St. Christopher House could be considered a cultural centre, but so too could the local community recreation centre, or the local donut shop. After all, these locations provide meeting places for people, as well as access to community and information resources, whether official or unofficial. Even local internet cafés could be considered to be cultural centres. For a neighbourhood with many of the characteristics associated with digital divide areas, including a mix of long-term residents and recent immigrants, and a lower family income and level of education that other areas of the city, these cultural centres might be as important as the centres of middle-class cultural activity that Wirth imagined. The integration of ICTs into many of these centres suggests that despite the digital divide label applied to this neighbourhood, digital culture is part of local culture.

Describing an Internet Ecology – A Sample Case Site in Inner-City Toronto

The rest of this paper discusses these questions from an inner-city Canadian perspective. Over the past several years, the Everyday Internet project has been analyzing the everyday experiences of the internet in a specific inner-city neighbourhood [1] where many government-funded CAP sites were opened during the 1990s. The access sites were integrated into many of the “cultural centres” in the neighbourhood, including the St. Christopher House social service agency, a donut shop, a resource centre for homeless people, and several ethnic cultural centres. At the same, the enormous popularity of the internet spurred the development of internet cafés and other pay-for service locations in the same neighbourhood.  In a trend that Warschauer (2003) identifies in developing countries, these internet cafés often also provided newer equipment and more peripherals like scanners and webcams meant to appeal to specific social groups such as video-game players. Compared with the Toronto population as a whole, the neighbourhood has many of the demographic characteristics associated with the digital divide – lower-than average family income, a higher proportion of English as a second language speakers, low education, seniors, and at-risk populations of the mentally ill and homeless (City of Toronto Social Policy Analysis and Research Unit, 2001). Given the area’s great variety of public internet access options and the characteristics of its population, it represents an excellent site for an ecological study of public access.

The ethnographic approach taken in this paper attempts to explore the neighbourhood from the perspective of a resident. Residents of the neighourhood take fewer trips by car than Canadians or even other Toronto residents (City of Toronto Urban Development Service, 2002) Therefore, the research concentrates on developing a geographic sense of the neighbourhood based on pedestrian movement, and on visual observation. It explores the locations and relationships of internet access locations within a thirty-minute walking radius from St. Christopher House. While this area is roughly similar to a neighbourhood called “Little Portugual” or Ward 18 by the City of Toronto, defining it in human terms changes the perspective from that of the mapmaker or bureaucrat to that of the resident commuting by foot: streetcar stops, shortcuts, and street corners become more important than electoral boundaries.

Within this area, there are seventeen sites of public internet access, both public and privately owned. These locations are owned or managed by a variety of different groups and individuals, but the majority are managed by St. Christopher House. At the agency’s central location, which serves Portuguese, Chinese, and Spanish-speakers, programs include recreational dance, language classes, a community choir, drop-in hours for seniors, and settlement services for new immigrants. The agency attempts to integrate information technology in the majority of these activities, but its influence on the provision of internet technology extends geographically out from its main centre, as it also manages eleven Community Access Points at satellite locations, where attempts are made to integrate digital technologies into the other services provided, such as employment counseling or language training. In addition, a drop-in centre for mentally ill and homeless members provides internet access along with recreation and social services, and the Government of Canada’s Human Resources and Skills Development department operates an employment centre at a shopping mall where limited internet access is available in order to search for jobs. The local branches of the public library also provide computers with internet access. Finally, there are five internet cafés in the neighbourhood, run by local entrepreneurs. Residents, including the author, can choose from among these services and possibilities. Finding them, however, reveals their integration in a locally determined communicative ecology.

Locating Internet Access Points – The Importance of Context

To explore as a local resident the availability of different internet access options, the author travelled by foot across the research area, equipped with a list of addresses of public internet access points administered by St. Christopher House. This phase of research was guided by the assumption that internet access points, like other cultural centres such as the concert halls, libraries, and art galleries imagined by Wirth, would be obviously visible to a passerby. However, locating internet access is a part of a communicative ecology that includes the use of web sites and maps to determine the locations of available internet access. Some descriptive questions addressed in this phase were: What kinds of internet access locations were available in the neighbourhood? Where were they located? How far from each other? How many in one area? What did they look like? How is the presence of internet access indicated, if at all?

The data-gathering techniques drew from, even as they described, the communicative ecology of locating internet access. After consulting the St. Christopher House web site and an up-to date phone book to identify addresses of internet access points, each location was visited on foot and the author photographed all of the obvious physical indications of internet access (signs, logos, etc). At each site, the author asked reception staff whether public internet access was provided, and the process of locating the access was recorded. This phase of research described the integration of public internet access into communicative ecologies – both in terms of their location, and in terms of the resources (textual, visual, and experiential) mobilized to locate them.

Adopting Gurstein’s (2003) definition of “effective use” as “the capacity and opportunity to successfully integrate ICTs into the accomplishment of self or collaboratively identified goals” the second phase of research evaluated the affordances offered at each site, especially in terms of their ability to provide contexts for effective use. The following questions guided this part of the research: What kind of equipment is available? Are people socially engaged with each other or with supervisors at the site? Are there barriers to access? Is the access point well-used? A survey tool was used to gather additional information from eleven of the sixteen sites. These sites formed a cross-section of different types of public internet access (internet cafés, libraries, and sites within community centres) and were distributed across the neighbourhood. The survey assessed both the technical infrastructure – “technical affordances” and the social infrastructure that made it possible to ask and receive assistance – “social affordances.” The survey recorded the number and quality of the internet access terminals, the availability of peripheral equipment such as webcams, printers or scanners, and the types of programs the visitors were using. Brief interviews were also conducted with the managers of the access points.

Finally, the research examined how the experiences of using different types of public internet sites, contributed to the contexts for effective use. Interviews with the manager of an internet café and with the manager and several visitors to the St. Christopher House site revealed that the creation of specific contexts was a conscious, ongoing effort, and that effective use of the ICTs available at the different locations was influenced by this contextualization.

Results: Location, Contexts, Affordances

The results of the ethnographic exploration show some of the elements of an internet ecology: location, context, and affordances.  Locating internet access is not merely a process of moving through the physical space of the neighbourhood and looking for signs or visual clues; it also requires drawing on elements of situated local knowledge, as well as other communication formats like web sites, telephone books, and maps. The availability of internet access is rarely visible, except when it is advertised as a commodity. The contrast between the visibility of paid internet access points and the invisibility of free ones raises the question of whether access should be universal, and hence “visible,” or offered as part of an existing slate of services, and therefore not “visible” to someone who is not already familiar with the services and the location.

Despite the neighbourhood’s digital divide status, public internet access was widely available, both from free public access sites and at pay-for-service internet cafés and other locations. Within the research area, seventeen internet access points were identified, thirteen were visited, and twelve surveyed. The table below describes the location and type of each internet access point, the number of hours per day the location is open, and indicates the number of computers available, and the number of computers being used. In general, pay-for-service locations had much longer opening hours, greater numbers of computers, and higher visibility from the street. One location provided subsidized access (at a nominal fee but lower than at other pay-for-service locations) inside a donut shop.

Table 1. Internet access point information.

Location Name


Hours per day

Number of computers

Number used

Pay-for service:

Wizma Internet

window sign, sandwich board




I-Klick Internet Café

large logo, window sign




Hi-Speed Internet

window sign




Splish Splash Laundromat

sandwich board




Total Help Inc.

sandwich board




Galaxy Donuts **





** Subsidized







St. Christopher House

sign at front desk

2- 5



Vietnamese Association





Mary McCormick Rec Centre

none – desk staff unaware of centre’s existence




Lakeshore Employment Centre

confusing signage in basement of a mall




College/Shaw Library

library sign, no mention of internet




The Meeting Place





Spatially, the access points were not evenly distributed. The following map depicts the clustering of access points along major commercial routes both to the east and in the centre of the neighbourhood.

This distribution may be related to the demographics of the communities surrounding these commercial streets: the City of Toronto electoral ward data reveals that Ward 18 has a higher than average proportion of households who earned less than $30,000 per year, and a significantly larger than average number of households who earned between $10,000 and $20,000 in 2001 (City of Toronto Urban Development Service, 2001b). In addition 25% of people in the ward discontinued their formal education after Grade 9 (City of Toronto Urban Development Service, 2001a). A population with these characteristics would likely be called a “digital divide community” by internet researchers. But these areas both have excellent public access. Why? From an “ecological” perspective, likely for two reasons: firstly, because existing “cultural centres” such as the drop-in centre for the mentally ill and homeless, the various locations of St. Christopher House, and the public library are providing a host of services which have come to include internet service; and secondly because internet café owners can build a steady clientele. Two internet café owners explained that they chose their locations because there were many people in the neighbourhood who did not have computers, did not have high-speed access, or could not afford to maintain their home computers. The concentrations of public internet access points in these two commercial areas (accessible by foot by neighbourhood residents) illustrate the role of existing cultural centres in creating the possibilities for access, as well as the way in which private business locations mirror the locations of those “cultural centres.”

1. Locating Internet Access Points – Visual Clues and Existing Context

Despite an initial assumption that internet access points would be visible to passersby and clearly indicate the presence of computers and internet access, field research revealed that apart from internet cafés, who advertised “computers” and “internet,” only one other public access site indicated that it provided internet access – this a small business that acts as a pay-for-service settlement agency where clients pay a nominal fee for help with immigration paperwork, business planning, and job searching. See [Photo 1] for detail. The computers, explained the owner, are rarely used except by clients. The owner believes that the computers and the internet, while useful as part of the range of services she provides, do not independently attract clients. Examining the images such as [Photo 2], an image of the front window of an internet café in the area, suggests that this perspective is shared by other business owners. In this window, computers and internet access are only two of the services highlighted as being offered. The owner of the internet café closest to St. Christopher House explained to me that while internet service is central to his business, he primarily offers his clients an “office” where they can use new software, take advantage of good-quality equipment, and ask him for help when any trouble arises.  The visual presentation of internet access and computers as “just another” service at a neighbourhood business is one way that the ubiquity of internet access results in the integration of internet access into other contexts, and the importance of providing computer assistance as a context considered important enough for internet café owners to develop it.

A more striking example of the integration of internet access into existing contexts was the relative invisibility of some public access points. A map and list of access points do not necessarily constitute all of the necessary knowledge for locating internet access sites. At a recreation centre, the author asked at the front desk whether public internet access was provided. The response from the receptionist was that it had closed, and that the computers had been reallocated for use at a summer day camp. However, the manager of the St. Christopher area CAP program later claimed that there is apparently a successful CAP site in the building, but that in order to find it one would have had to find the childcare centre and ask the manager of the childcare centre about computer classes for young mothers. This is an excellent example of how an existing context might facilitate access to technology for one group (young mothers) while creating barriers for other groups (local residents interested in getting access to the internet). To find the internet access point at the federal government funded employment centre, located in the basement of a shopping mall, one must follow a hallway away from the main mall area, past the Employment Insurance Office (which also contains computers) and through an office door marked “Service Centre.” Although there is a desk for a supervisor at this location, there was no staff person on duty, and consequently no one to explain the sign-in procedures, which were mandatory and which limited each individual to only one hour of use per day. These two examples raise questions about whether it is better to provide a contextual context of access for specific populations (mothers with small children; job-seekers who have just filed for employment insurance) or a universal context of access for the average passerby.  Each of these specific contexts admits or limits potential internet users based on their relationship to specific spaces at specific times. This conclusion resonates with Buré’s (2006) observation that homeless internet users may not feel that the public library is part of their frame of reference.

2. Affordances Provided at Internet Access Points –Technology vs. Training

One of the key differences between internet cafés and public access points was a difference in what each type of access point afforded to its visitors. Internet cafés, because of their fee for service, afforded their visitors access to new computers and equipment in good condition, new software, popular computer games, and webcams, scanners, and fax machines. At all of the internet cafés, visitors used webcams, microphones, scanners, printers, and faxes. Since the majority of the publicly funded access locations did not provide these kinds of technologies, they seem to be one of the key affordances that pay-for-service locations could offer. However, in the course of my visits, few people seemed to be interacting with each other at these locations, suggesting that social affordances were not generally part of the context at pay-for-service locations.  Instead, the locations primarily seemed to afford access to newer equipment, and occasionally assistance from an owner or manager.

In contrast, at several of the publicly funded sites, including the public library, the two drop-in centres, and St. Christopher House, visitors were observed chatting with each other, working together, and in one case, teaching and learning. These social affordances seemed to be the main benefit of these publicly funded locations, which had older equipment and little or no peripheral hardware. A number of locations including one of the drop-in centres provide structured computer classes and workshops. These programs might encourage people who do not have strong ICT skills to develop them in a non-threatening environment.

These observations would tend to suggest that publicly funded sites provide social affordances while internet cafés provide technical affordances. However, this is not strictly true, as some of the publicly funded sites did not appear to afford much of the “supporting structures ... and local facilitation” that Gurstein (2003) argues are necessary for effective use. The employment centre in the shopping mall basement provided reasonably good-quality equipment and a free printer, but created an unsupportive environment by refusing access to e-mail, providing no decoration save government notices, and providing no help or supervision whatsoever. At the same time, one internet café owner claimed that most of his clients visited his location because of the skilled help he as a computer engineer could provide them.

Taken together, these observations suggest that a good way for publicly funded access points to best serve their communities would be develop a specific context for internet access, one that could be distinguished from the contexts provided at internet cafés, which can also provide sites of local social engagement (Selwyn, 2003; Haseloff, 2005). Given limited funds and the technological affordances already provided by internet cafés, it seems unlikely that publicly funded sites should put all of their resources into better equipment, but they could perhaps attempt to develop meaningful training programs or invest in specific types of software that might be useful to their visitors and participants. This development of context would need to be supported by government policies that privilege not only universal access but equally contextual access.

3: Contextualizing Access

The final step of the ethnography consisted of interviewing people to determine how they understood and took advantage of the various affordances they were able to locate at the internet access sites. The interview results provide further insights into the impact of these affordances on effective uses at different types of public access sites. These perceptions reinforce several aspects introduced by the idea of the ecology – that internet access points are deeply connected to local areas, and that a social or cultural context for internet access helps people feel comfortable with technology.

The owner of an internet café three blocks from the social service agency felt that internet cafés are mainly relevant to people in an immediately local area. He chose to buy his business because it is located close to his home, and he describes internet cafés as being “like convenience stores” because, in his opinion, people do not travel very far to use the internet or to do office work. Considering that neighbourhood residents make fewer trips by car than other city residents (City of Toronto Urban Development Service, 2002), the proximity of internet and ICT services to their homes is an important affordance. When asked about whether he felt he was in competition with St. Christopher House, located three blocks away, he responded that he didn’t feel like it as the centre was still pretty far away. These comments suggest that public internet access points in urban areas are experienced on a very local scale. From an effective use perspective they are part of a local social and cultural infrastructure (Gurstein, 2003). At St. Christopher House two regular participants in the teaching and learning program at the internet access point described their experiences. One young man, a refugee from India, explained how he began visiting St. Christopher house for the ESL language classes, and then discovered “there was a program where I could use the internet free of charge” (SCM, 2002). He explained that while he has a card for access at the employment centre, he found that location frustrating because it was far from his home and because he was limited to one hour per day. However, more than convenience, he valued the other advantages of the social service agency: “there are two advantages - the first is using the computer, and the second is learning about the computer.” At a pay-for-service location, he said, “there is no one to help with your English, to help with your resumé” (SCM, 2002). For this visitor, who discovered the internet access services because of a previous association with St. Christopher House, informal language help and computer assistance are the main advantages to using the access point.

Another visitor, a woman in her early 20s, started coming to use the internet at St. Christopher House soon after her immigration to Canada from China. Her computer was in transit, and a friend suggested she visit St. Christopher House after she got frustrated at paying for access at internet cafés.  Even after her computer arrived and she connected it to the internet, she kept visiting: “I met a lot of staff here and they are so nice, so helpful ... that I decided to register as a volunteer.” (SCW, 2002) She said that she enjoys the fact that she can practice her English with the other participants and that she visits about four days a week. She explained that it is “not just about computers, it is like a family.” For this visitor, friendship and companionship began with using the computers, but have become important in and of themselves:  “I don’t need to use the computers here but I like to come here to talk with my friends ...  and sometimes you can learn some things.” She doesn’t like internet cafés because “they don’t want to help you ... they are just looking for the money” (SCW, 2002) This visitor’s experiences suggest that she has been able to learn as a practitioner – and to become an expert, an experience that resonates with Stanley’s (2001) observation that use of computers at a community technology centre helped visitors begin to consider themselves as the kinds of people who used computers. These two visitors to the social service agency concentrated on the social relationships built while using the internet and computer centre, rather than on the tasks they were able to complete or the equipment available. This suggests that in some contexts effective use is relatively unrelated to the quality of ICTs and more dependent on the quality of social relationships and training opportunities available.

Lessons Learned

Contextual Access and Effective Use

Perhaps the greatest insight provided in the analysis of this neighbourhood internet ecology was a renewed sense of the internet’s ubiquity in what is considered to be a digital divide community. This draws into question the utility of describing the digital divide in social or economic terms. The owners of the internet cafés interviewed argued that, despite their struggles to maintain their business, both decided to open computer businesses because “everyone needs the internet.” For Canadian policy-makers, this vision of necessity also guided the establishment of the CAP program and its expansion into urban areas. However, the notion that the internet is “necessary” has promoted access strategies that have focused on home access as the benchmark, and have defined public access primarily as access to devices. These narrow understandings of access appear inadequate when we consider what aspects of effective use are facilitated by the different internet contexts explored.  For many people in the neighbourhood, the internet may not have been considered important enough to invest in a (still-expensive) home computer and high-speed connection. But internet access, and the contexts of the internet, either as convenient street-corner ICT access or as way of developing social relationships, make public access important. These contexts frame the use of internet technology and provide it with meaning. Thus, policies for promoting effective use of public internet access should be maintained. As Clement et al. point out, the internet plays a role in some everyday experiences for those who do not use it heavily, as well (2002).

Identifying and remaining sensitive to the context of internet use is one concrete way to ensure access to the full range of what Clement and Shade have referred to as the “access rainbow” (Clement and Shade, 2000). As Selwyn (2003) points out, access to internet technology does not necessarily determine the quality of its use. His study of European access points seems to indicate that government-funded internet access points were not meeting the needs of those on the other side of the digital divide any more than internet cafés or other “gateways” were. In other words, the contexts provided by government-funded public access points were not significantly different than those provided by privately owned internet cafés. However, many of the publicly funded sites considered in this paper seemed to be succeeding at creating a context for people who were already visiting to access other services.

According to the director of the St. Christopher House internet access site, the more contextualized, though less visible sites do a better job of providing useful contexts to people without much experience of the internet, or much knowledge of ICT. However, at the same time, the privately owned internet cafés also provided a different kind of context. They were visible to passersby, and provided travelers and experienced users of the internet with a wide range of services accessible at all times. Their billboards, signs, and windows full of computing equipment provided visual clues that indicated that the internet and computers were an increasingly important part of the neighbourhood.

Therefore, context becomes important in at least two ways: first, it can situate the internet within an existing cultural centre, situation, or relationship; and second, it can visually anchor the internet as part of everyday experiences.  In both senses, it is the contextualization that makes the internet meaningful and facilitate effective use, not merely the presence or absence of an internet-equipped device in a home. Placing internet access sites in contexts of existing cultural centres can help to provide internet access points to target specific populations, such as the homeless and mentally-ill populations, as well as the working poor and recent immigrants, who are unlikely to encounter the internet within other contexts. At the same time, encountering public internet access sites during a walk home reiterates the accessibility of internet technologies – as means of communication with distant family, or as locations for informal assistance with computing problems.


This experiment in describing internet access ecologies as part of local communicative ecologies suggests that public contexts for internet access provide different affordances, which combine to create different possibilities for effective use. Gaining access to these contexts is a process linked into the spatial and temporal experience of the neighbourhood, and is itself embedded into a communicative ecology involving several media forms and formats. The findings of this paper join a growing body of literature that suggests that internet access sites, whether publicly funded or private, are most valuable in terms of facilitating effective use when they are embedded into specific local experience (see Miller and Slater, 2000; Wellman and Haythornthwaite, 2002; Warshauer, 2003; Faulkner and Kleif, 2003; Haseloff, 2005; and Buré, 2006 for some examples). From a policy perspective, accounting for such value might meant shifting the focus away from universal access and towards contextual access, which would take into account the fact that computing devices are relatively widely available in urban North America, but that specialized software, communities of practice, and knowledgeable assistance may be in short supply. In addition, a discourse of contextual access permits a focus on what Clement and Shade (2000) identify as the outside arc of the “access rainbow” – the facilitation of governance of access. Such a discourse would also acknowledge the role of internet café entrepreneurs in providing relatively inexpensive and accessible internet connectivity and technical assistance, in addition to an anonymous, drop-in context suitable for travelers, local residents, migrant workers, and those who need access from a variety of locations. Despite the marginal nature of many internet café businesses, they do provide an important and visible set of internet and information services.

This paper has focused on the local context in a Canadian inner city. It suggests that Canadian internet policy should take into account not merely home internet access as a measure of access, but also public access. Furthermore, such policy should focus the many ways in which the internet is being contextualized. While such policy concerns are intimately connected to the Canadian context, considering the contextualized experience of internet use rather than merely the technical level of “access” to internet services could become part of other studies of local cultures and their communicative ecologies. As the digital divide becomes more subtly contextualized, so too can different types of access provide the contexts required for effective use of ICTs.


This research was supported by the Everyday Internet Project at the University of Toronto, itself funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. I would like to thank Andrew Clement, Ana Viseu, Leslie Regan Shade and Graham Longford as well as two anonymous reviewers for their generous and constructive comments.

End Notes

[1] Research has included the comparison of public and private internet access experiences, as well as he role of the St. Christopher House social service agency in providing internet training. See Clement et al., 2003.


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