Work begins this month to connect about 1,300 households and businesses to high-speed internet in several Almaguin Highlands communities.
Lakeland Networks of Bracebridge is carrying out the $4.8-million fibre internet project.
The federal government's Universal Broadband Funding program is contributing $3.1 million toward the project, while Lakeland is putting up $1.7 million for a 75-25 split in cost-sharing.
The federal funding falls under Project ROBIN, the Rural Ontario Broadband Internet Network, and will introduce high speed internet to businesses and homes in South River, Machar, Sundridge, Lake Bernard, Burk's Falls, Katrine and Emsdale.
Dave Keith, director of business development and operations at Lakeland, says the project brings high-speed internet to under-serviced or substandard areas along the Highway 11 corridor. This is the second major high-speed internet project Lakeland has been involved in for the area in less than a year. Keith says last August, Lakeland carried out a fibre optics project to bring improved internet to about 1,000 homes and businesses in Burk's Falls and Sundridge at its own expense. Keith says while that project didn't connect all homes and businesses at the time, the company will be able to further expand high-speed connectivity to both communities, in addition to the other Almaguin townships and villages. Lakeland didn't waste any time securing permits from the municipalities as soon as the funding announcement came down in April. Keith says all the municipalities were “extremely accommodating” but that doesn't come as a surprise, since all the townships and villages have pushed for better internet speeds for years. Keith says the permit approvals have started coming in from the municipalities in addition to Lakeland getting the necessary authorizations from Trans Canada Pipelines, the Ministry of Transportation and rail services, since the work will also take work crews onto land controlled by these entities. Keith says connecting 1,300 households and businesses to high-speed internet may not be the largest project undertaken but it's still significant because it introduces a segment of the population that's been historically under-serviced to a better service. “And that's the goal,” Keith says. “To get (high-speed) internet to 1,300 under-serviced households and businesses is a great strong number.” Keith says the work will take several months and it likely won't be until mid fall and into early 2022 that customers can begin signing up for faster internet speeds. Once all the upgrades are in place, Keith says Lakeland will add eight to 12 employees to its labour force in order to accommodate the larger customer base. Meanwhile, the improved service comes at a strategic time. Keith says COVID-19 has seen a shift in the workforce with many people working from home and the Muskoka and Almaguin regions are no different. He says Lakeland has seen “a major increase in our customer base in usage in the Muskoka area of people working from their summer or seasonal homes.” “And they've been there pretty much full-time,” he said. What's more, that shift may become permanent as Keith says some companies might give their employees the option of coming into the office or to work from their own home. Keith says some people will likely continue to work from home after the pandemic is over and one reason is they won't have to deal with rush hour traffic in the GTA. In fact, Lakeland says information indicates that 20 per cent of the current seasonal residents in the area will become permanent or full-time residents, meaning they and businesses will need reliable internet. Keith acknowledges the current project still leaves under-serviced regions in Almaguin and that's because the landscape creates numerous difficulties and challenges. “This is a difficult landscape to build on,” he says, but the company is able to overcome these obstacles. Keith says it's much easier to work in residential areas that are built up where you have a higher density of people who are permanent homeowners compared to seasonal dwellings. He says it's far more expensive to expand into under-serviced areas, but that's where the Universal Broadband Funding program is a big help. “Being a business we look at things on a case by case basis,” he said. “So when we see funding opportunities like this (the Universal Broadband Funding), we're extremely grateful”. Keith says there are still many people in Almaguin without high-speed internet and who won't be part of this current expansion. But he notes undertaking the current expansion will make it a little easier to build on future extensions. Keith hopes UBF will open up another round of funding for the area so companies like Lakeland can move closer to bringing high-speed internet to everyone in Almaguin. He says as more funding opportunities are announced, it clears the way for more upgrades meaning more residents in rural regions will be able to enjoy the same internet quality as people in urban centres currently do.
Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The North Bay Nugget