'It would be amazing': Patchwork of rural broadband powers up parts of West Niagara while leaving others in the dark

With a government-backed plan bringing broadband to remote areas throughout Niagara, some residents are closer than ever to affordable, reliable internet. But for others, the wait goes on.

The internet network is being delivered by Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT), a non-profit organization, which is expanding high-speed broadband across southwestern Ontario, in partnership with the all levels of government.

For West Niagara, two projects are currently in progress. The first will bring internet to a section of Beamsville between the QEW and the CN Rail line, and to St. Anns. The second will service Ward 1 in West Lincoln, running through the settlements of Fulton, Grassie, Abingdon, Caistor Centre and St. Anns.

For Sonya Hachkowski, owner of Angel’s Place guest house and organic fruit farm in Beamsville, getting the service will mean they are finally in line with their neighbours, a stone’s throw away across the rail line.

“Oh my god, it would be amazing,” she said.

Hachkowski currently uses satellite internet, which while fairly reliable could be faster and is more expensive than regular internet.

In addition to being a small fruit farm, Angel’s Gate is a guest house, which provides short-term rentals.

As part of the package, Hachkowski provides guests internet access, so having SWIFT connect the property to high-speed internet would improve the guest experience. “It would be so great,” she said.

According to the SWIFT project information, the construction of that service is due to be completed at the end of November, for a service start date of late December.

However, SWIFT internet is a piecemeal project, so not all of Niagara will gain access all at once.

That means that for some, like Greg Stephens, who lives in a section of West Lincoln that will not be connected by the latest round of improvements, the wait continues. “Why not me?” he asked.

For now, Stephens opts to use Starlink, which is part of Elon Musk’s SpaceX company. That uses an antenna to beam internet down from satellites, and Stephens said it works well, but not consistently. That’s an issue since Stephens and his family rely on the internet for business, and the internet cutting out is a “constant worry.”

It’s also not the cheapest option, at $158.20 a month, after a deposit for the antenna.

“I pay a lot of money,” he said. “(But) to get the connection I need out here, I had to get Starlink.”

If SWIFT came to his property, it would be a no-brainer for him to switch over, not only for affordability, but also for reliability. He feels a bit left behind by the government for not providing it sooner. “I need something out here for what I pay (in taxes), other than a hard time,” he said.

Rob Foster, an executive at SWIFT, said the construction process is designed so politics is removed from the equation, and it just looks at the technical side of things.

Under the process, internet service providers (ISPs) know the funding is available, and approach SWIFT with a brief to say where they can go and provide the infrastructure, and how many houses that can service.

Those proposals would then be reviewed by a non-partisan technical group to ensure all the boxes are ticked, and the proposal will achieve the aims of SWIFT.

Municipalities do play a role, advocating for the services and directing them to the places that need it the most trying to fill the gaps to serve residents like Stephens.

“We just make sure that those decision makers know where we’re missing (high-speed internet),” said Bev Hendry, chief administrative officer for West Lincoln.

“And so, this last time around, we actually got a lot of coverage in our rural hamlets. But then it stops, right? So, then the next person saying, well, what about me? So, we just keep advocating for that and making sure that happens.”

Chris Pickles, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Grimsby Lincoln News