Magnetawan Mayor Sam Dunnett hopes to see real progress made in 2021 connecting more of the Almaguin Highlands to high-speed internet.
“I regard it as a utility, and it's no different than hydro, water or sewer,” says Dunnett. “It's no longer a luxury.”
Dunnett says the need for faster internet speeds grows as more people work from home.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced more people to work from home. And while that may not be a problem in urban centres where high-speed internet is a given, it's a different story in rural communities like Magnetawan.
But Dunnett acknowledges it's not an easy problem to fix.
Installing infrastructure such as fibre optics in rural areas where distances are great from one home to the next makes the endeavour expensive for the private sector.
Dunnett acknowledges the federal and provincial governments have been generous with grants to introduce high-speed internet.
“But the problem is there isn't enough money to go right across Canada,” he says. “So when they announce a $10-million program, and it costs $1 million or more just to do a small area, that $10 million isn't going to go very far.”
Dunnett believes it will take many billions of dollars in government funds to get the big internet players to invest more in rural areas and that, in turn, will attract smaller internet companies.
He says municipalities don't have the money to take on these massive projects and adds “nor should they, or they'd have to tax more.”
Dunnett says part of Magnetawan is fortunate in that Bell created a fibre-optics link along Highway 520 a few years ago which introduced faster internet speeds through the community's downtown core.
The next big job, he says, is identifying someone to help connect residents who live away from the downtown to that main line.
Dunnett believes not having access to high-speed internet impedes progress and that more people would move to Almaguin from southern Ontario if the entire region had high-speed internet.
“It's been really good already,” he says. “And it would be that much more if you had a high-speed internet. People would come up here, build here, work from here and then send their finished work to their workplace, which would be somewhere in an urban centre.”
Replacing a 50-plus-year-old culvert that allows residents to get to their cottages in Magnetawan also is on Dunnett's radar for 2021.
But the actual replacement won't be carried out until 2022, he says.
That's because the engineering work on the project will be carried out this year to ensure the replacement meets Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry standards, Dunnett explains. The culvert, installed in 1970, is situated along the Magnetawan River system at Poverty Bay in the former unorganized township of Croft.
“They (culverts) have a 50-year lifespan, so we're there,” he says. “The bottom of it has been deteriorating, which they normally do.”
Dunnett says the culvert replacement will cost between $750,000 and $1 million, and “we'll look into grants to see if one is available for this type of program.”
However, the mayor isn't optimistic.
“The problem with culverts and roads is governments want to see connecting links. But this one goes to a dead-end road,” he explains. “So I doubt we'll be successful, but we can always try.”
If the municipality can't secure government funding, Dunnett says council will turn to its asset management fund, where it has been putting money for a number of years.
“So we're not looking at taxing the taxpayer for any of the work because they have already contributed to that fund.” he says.
The fund was created by the former Ontario Liberal government to ensure municipalities have a reserve to replace infrastructure as needed.
In addition to culverts and roads, Dunnett says the fund also can be applied to vehicle replacement, building work and park maintenance.
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, The North Bay Nugget