The Canadian and Ontario governments are investing more than $1 billion in new money to remove “Can you hear me now?” from the lexicon of rural and Northern Ontario residents.
Why it matters: Reliable, high speed internet is critical as more rural residents and farmers conduct business on-line.
As part of the province’s 2020 budget released Nov. 5, an additional $680 million over six years was added to the existing $315 million in Up to Speed: Ontario’s Broadband and Cellular Action Plan.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced days later the federal government will invest an additional $750 million to the already promised $1 billion to the Universal Broadband Fund over the next six years. The Rapid Response Stream will see $150 million for shovel-ready projects across Canada and the rest will be invested in an agreement with Telesat, a Canadian satellite company.
The money is another big boost to address the need to connect Canadians outside of cities to high speed internet.
“With the world online these days, if we are going to attract more investment to Ontario and compete in this highly competitive global marketplace, we need every part of our province connected with high-speed internet,” said Premier Doug Ford.
Within the funding announcement the Improving Connectivity in Ontario (ICON) program will see a doubling of its funding to $300 million with a leveraging potential of $900 million in total partner funding.
Trudeau said using Telesat’s low-earth-orbit satellite capacity would improve connectivity and expand high-speed internet coverage for far north, rural and remote regions.
Navdeep Bains, federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry said access to high-speed internet is a top priority for rural and remote Canadians.
“High-speed internet is more than just a convenience — it means opportunity. It enables physicians to see patients from a distance,” said Bains. “It allows businesses to reach customers around the world and it allows students in one classroom to connect with their peers in other parts of the country.”
Rural households the internet have-nots
Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) data shows more than 1.4 million people across the province do not have broadband or cellular access and about 10 per cent of households, mostly in rural, remote or northern areas, are underserved or unserved in a broadband perspective.
Keith Currie, Ontario Federation of Agriculture president, said the investment is going to benefit all of society.
“You’ll be able to get the 5G in place fairly quickly,” said Currie. “That opens up the door for much better broadband internet service to lots of parts of Ontario, including Northern Ontario.”
Currie said it’s not feasible to run fibre optic cables through Northern Ontario but putting up towers to service broadband and cellular service makes sense.
Bringing Northern Ontario connectivity on par with the rest of the province is key due to the opportunities opening up in the region, he said.
“As our climate changes it will open up more and more opportunities for raising more corn product out there and raising more livestock. Part of being able to do that is having adequate services.”
Currie said agriculture is increasingly automated, in part due to the labour shortage, so access to technology is vital.
Sharing the big internet pipes
Having fibre and broadband infrastructure is an important first step, said Allan Thompson, Rural Ontario Municipal Association chair.
A next step would be to make internet access an essential service.
He hopes it leads to all the fibre being linked to 151 Front Street in Toronto.
That address is home to the country’s largest telecom nerve centre, or “carrier hotel” where telecom, internet service providers and content companies collocate to exchange traffic between their networks.
“We have a lot of dark fibre, a lot of fibre that’s already owned by several groups,” Thompson said. “When it’s made an essential service it gets them to share the use of that fibre especially for backhaul or light up some of that dark fibre that’s owned by railways etc.”
Thompson said if everyone shared access to the fibre everyone would benefit from the cost recovery.
“It’s like if Ford put money into the 407 (highway) and only Ford cars could drive on it,” he said. “That’s what we have right now, and what we need is that open to everybody.”
Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT) and Eastern Ontario Regional Network (EORN) are pushing companies to invest in kilometres, not population, when connecting rural areas.
“They only want to go where there’s population, but we’ve got to go where it’s kilometres,” he said. “Especially when we get to the rural areas, there are a lot of big users out there that can really benefit.”
Thompson said it’s similar to the struggle of getting natural gas down rural roads to service big grain elevators, poultry farms and other agriculture business that would benefit. Companies aren’t looking at the big picture and how they could recoup their costs by covering those kilometres instead of focusing on population.
Thompson said the Ontario government appears committed to investing in broadband and cellular infrastructure.
“They’ve definitely listened and they’re trying to deliver — I give them full marks. I’m not knocking them down,” he said. “They’re really trying to make this province work for the people and I’m grateful for it.”
However, he said if the province made it an essential service the dots would get connected quicker.
“We believe that we should have broadband in every house and every business in Ontario,” said Ernie Hardeman, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. “We have to be careful because we want to use not only the money we’re putting in, we want to get buy-in from the private sector to be a partner in this too.”
Hardeman said he believes the $1 billion total investment from the province will go a long way. However, if the federal government agreed to a 60-40 cost-sharing arrangement, as is done in many agriculture programs, that would propel the projects further.
“Let’s get as much of it built as we can so everybody has it,” he said.