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Roundtable weighs in on need for better rural internet

Ontario NDP Deputy Leader John Vanthof discusses the importance of internet access in rural areas with Mayor Steve Ferguson, and Chamber of Commerce president Sandy Latchford, and executive director Lesley Lavender.

When the world wide web burst out in a big way in the mid-90s, it was to be the great equalizer.

We’re still waiting.

Ontario NDP Deputy Leader John Vanthof held a round-table at the County’s Chamber of Commerce office Tuesday in Picton to discuss the importance of a concrete plan to expand internet access to rural communities.

Vanthof’s motion to expand broadband service throughout rural Ontario passed the legislature in November 2018. He is calling for the provincial government for support in the upcoming provincial budget.

The MPP for Timiskaming-Cochrane riding told about a dozen chamber members and guests his visit was part of a tour throughout the province to gather views to press the Conservative party to come good on its campaign promise to improve internet in rural areas.

“What we need is a concrete plan similar to the one currently being developed in Quebec,” he said, noting that province’s 10-year plan at $100 million a year in attempt to bring universal access.

People in rural communities, he said, are shaking their heads when told they can apply, or get something online “because they have no (or poor) access”.

“Look at the government’s latest announcement that high school students will have to complete four courses online,” Vanthof said. “That’s why we’re doing this. To put pressure. During the election campaign the Conservatives said there was $100 million on the table for natural gas expansion for rural Ontario and they were going to change that program – which they did. And that $100 million would be allocated to broadband expansion in rural Ontario.”

The internet has quickly transformed the way people communicate, learn and do business – but Vanthof and those around the table agreed rural residents are being left behind – with no or poor service that is expensive and difficult to find.

One problem, Vanthof said is that the big telecom companies, as they should as private companies, are concentrating efforts where they will make the most money. Another is concentration on the 5G network, while some areas still have other, much slower, or no services.

“That’s the role of the private sector. So in areas where it’s harder, they don’t concentrate on it, yet in some cases they control the bandwidth, so the smaller companies trying to make a buck serving the smaller areas are also having a hard time accessing the service. That’s a roadblock.”

“Throwing money at it is great, but you have to identify the roadblocks,” he said, noting the federal government in its budget this week rolled out a 10-year $5-$6 billion dollar plan for northern and rural communities.

“Providers have told me that won’t even cover Ontario. So we need to have an actual strategy with an achievable goal for accessible, useable internet… When the internet came out it was supposed to be the great equalizer – you could live in a small town, or downtown Toronto and you would have the same access to information. That’s never happened and until we get to that level we are, our kids are, going to fall farther and farther behind.”

The Canadian Radio Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ruled in 2016 that internet is a basic telecommunications service and should be available to all Canadians. A $750 million fund over five years was established to expand service.

That move was applauded by the Eastern Ontario Warden’s Caucus (EOWC), of which the County’s mayor is a member. The EOWC has seen some successes in its bid to expand internet and cellular service in the region and continues to seek federal and provincial support for public-private initiatives valued at about $200 million that would bring service to 95 per cent of homes and businesses in Eastern Ontario.

“The federal and provincial governments haven’t been playing nicely in the sandbox together and until they do, it’s going to be very difficult to get anything done… They have to talk to each other and that’s not happening,” said Prince Edward County Mayor Steve Ferguson, noting lack of quality service is causing businesses to move elsewhere.

“For every three or four who open here, we’ve got several who say how is broadband coverage because we rely on it. Economically, we could do a whole lot better attracting high-tech businesses and bringing our economy up if that access was absolutely guaranteed and the service was reliable.”

PEC Chamber executive director Lesley Lavender echoed his remarks noting internet is a basic requirement necessary for both business and community to grow and modernize. “It’s what we need for our businesses to grow in Prince Edward County.”

Roundtable member Al Venslovaitis spoke to the need of an over-riding driver such as the improvement of hospital services and savings that would be possible. That, he said, could provide the basic impetus for service, and others will benefit.

“If it’s a government objective they will really mean to achieve it. But there also has to be an agency in charge.”

Venthof said the NDP 10-year strategy is modelled on Quebec’s plan.

“Quebec took the bull by the horns and there are states in America doing the same thing. If we don’t, businesses will have jobs unfulfilled and young people will go someplace else,” he said. “We need a strategy to ensure everyone is being served… money is well-spent and part of a long-term internet management plan.”

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  1. Gary Mooney says:

    Ten years is a ridiculously long time for a program to provide universal access.

    And to Ryan, the rollout of 5G will be very slow (maybe never) in rural areas, because towers need to be much closer together — about 500m separation — which poses a big problem outside of cities.

  2. Ryan says:

    10 years, really? We’ll have 5G by next year.

    Even with the current 4G standard, It would make more sense (more cost-efficient and timely) to just offer people / businesses subsidies for their cell phone data plans which people could use as a mobile hot spot.

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