George Bilodeau and Doug Ford have something in common.
When it comes to reliable broadband internet access, especially in rural, remote and Northern communities, the mayor of the Municipality of Huron Shores and the premier of Ontario are like a dog with a bone.
According to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, more than 1.4 million people in Ontario do not have broadband or cellular access, and about 12 per cent of households in the province are underserved or unserved from a broadband perspective.
As more services move online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, poor internet service has left many individuals, businesses, and health0care organizations at a distinct disadvantage.
In an effort to close some of those gaps, the Ford government has pledged an additional $680 million on top of a previous $315 million to support Ontario’s Broadband Cellular Action Plan, which hopes to provide 220,000 households and businesses with greater access.
This nearly $1 billion investment over a six-year period will be used for shovel-ready projects that will connect unserviced and underserviced communities during COVID-19.
Bilodeau hopes that with a big dose of community enterprise, Huron Shores will be able to leverage some of that funding to solve some of the internet connectivity issues in his region.
“I’ve done a lot of lobbying, presentations, and cold calls over the last few months, and I always say that the system we have right now is like a two-lane highway, and we are trying to put the traffic of a six-lane highway onto two lanes,” he said.
“That’s what we have now. We need a new backbone, which will mean a whole new line. Up-to-date fibre that will be able to take on six-lane traffic with no difficulties whatsoever. Our technology right now is maybe 25 years behind.”
Bilodeau is spearheading a $150-million regional broadband network infrastructure project titled Huron & Manitoulin Community-Owned Fibre Infrastructure.
If successful, it would provide high-speed internet services to thousands of residents along a corridor that runs from Echo Bay to Nairn Centre, including Manitoulin Island.
“The problem is that all the major companies in this area are not really interested in giving us proper broadband services. Right now, we get minimum service, and the promise to bring us into the 21st century is just not there,” explained Bilodeau.
“They do Band-Aid solutions here and there, but nothing is up to the capacity that is needed for economic development, industry, and health services.”
Huron Shores decided to take matters into its own hands. Bilodeau is endeavoring to build a community-owned system where the municipalities involved would form a corporation and administer the broadband network.
“What we’re looking at is a wholesale point of view. We don’t want to take business away from the internet service providers that are in the region. What we would do is supply a better product to these internet service providers, so they can sell a better product to households,” he said.
“It would be easy to do a 50/10 and even a gig if a household wants a gig (gigabite). For hospitals and schools, we’re looking at 10 gigs.”
The project has already garnered support from more than 30 communities and First Nations along the corridor, including Whitefish River First Nation, Elliot Lake, and Espanola.
In fact, almost 90 per cent of the communities along the corridor have sent letters of support with resolutions to Huron Shores.
Much of the “legwork” for the project is almost completed, added Bilodeau, including details like how they are going to bring the fibre into the area, and where it’s going to come from.
Now, all they need is financial support from the provincial and federal governments.
By partnering with ROCK Networks, an Ottawa-based communications systems company, Huron Shores and Whitefish River First Nation were able to put together an application for the provincial government’s Improving Connectivity in Ontario (ICON) program.
At the end of September, they received a “positive nod” from the government indicating that their project has been asked to advance to stage 2 of the application process.
“Stage 2 is the financing. We need to secure a grant from the provincial government to cover 25 per cent of the cost of the project, which would equal about $37.5 million,” said Bilodeau.
“If we are successful in doing that, then the next step would be to see if we could get matching funding from the federal government.”
The $1 billion investment from the provincial government doubled the funding for Ontario’s ICON program, bringing the total to $300 million.
The program now has the potential to leverage more than $900 million in total partner funding to improve connectivity in areas of need across Ontario.
ICON is just one of several provincial initiatives underway to improve connectivity across northern, eastern, and southwestern Ontario.
The federal government also recently expanded and enhanced the Universal Broadband Fund to support high-speed internet projects across the country.
Originally designed as a $1 billion, the government increased funding for the UBF to $1.75 billion to help connect more Canadians and better prepare for the future.
Recognizing the need to accelerate this progress, Nickel Belt MP Marc Serre announced the launch of the Rapid Response Stream of the UBF, an accelerated application process that will allow shovel-ready projects to get started right away.
The stream will benefit local telecom companies in Northern Ontario and further contribute to the region’s economic recovery.
The application period is now open and community partners and stakeholders are encouraged to apply.
“Our communities’ economic development and ability to overcome the challenges of this pandemic greatly depends on having access to quality and affordable internet and cellular coverage for all,” said Serre.
“Working closely with municipal governments, the private sector and stakeholders, I will continue to advocate to ensure this important funding will benefit Nickel Belt-Greater Sudbury.”
Achieving greater internet connectivity is something that isimportant for Bilodeau, and the communities that he is working with, and he hopes that this project will open up opportunities for the region.
“Just as an example, (the other day) I was supposed to have a Zoom meeting with Greg Rickford, the minister of Energy, Northern Development and Mines. We were not able to do the Zoom conference,” said Bilodeau.
“I had to go on the landline, and I was holding my laptop looking at a slide deck. Minister Rickford was initially on his cellphone, but then he had connectivity issues, so we were both on landlines, with our laptops in front of us. We had to use two old technologies while I was trying to sell my idea.”
His region, he added, is really like a “second Muskoka.”
“In the last 15 years, Elliot Lake has seen more than 400 new cottages built north of the city. We all need broadband services,” he said.
“This will open up opportunities in the region. People won’t need to be down in Toronto working in a tower. They will be able to come up here, build a home, and be able to work from home if we are able to get this project up and running.”
The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.
Colleen Romaniuk, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star