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Rural Broadband in a post-pandemic Universe - Hill Times

This piece was written by Mayor Nancy Peckford and originally published in The Hill Times on Monday, April 27, 2020.

Rural broadband in a post-pandemic universe

As much of North America has ground to a halt to slow the spread of COVID-19, our reliance on virtual networks has only intensified. All of a sudden, what was the exception has become the rule - whether it’s employees working from home, clients using online platforms for shopping, taxes, doctor’s appointments, and classes or families streaming a live concert in lieu of the real thing.

To state the obvious, and as parents, professionals, and business leaders will attest, without good broadband internet, none of this would be possible. And what was once considered a perk of a well-networked neighbourhood has now become a lifeline for ourselves and the economy.

Our collective grasp on what makes this largely invisible infrastructure tick is remarkably weak, however. If you have good internet, it’s nearly unfathomable to imagine life without it. Yet, only a quarter of Canadians living in rural households have access to the new CRTC minimum standard for broadband, 50/10. In layman’s terms, this amounts to 50 Megabits per second (Mbps) download speeds and 10 Mbps upload speeds, a standard inconceivable for those with 2 or 3 Mbps on a good day.

Many assume those under-served are in the far north or highly remote locations. But this isn’t the case. Right here in eastern Ontario, excluding the urban portions of places including Ottawa, Kingston and Belleville, only 45 percent of households and businesses have 50/10. Go a few kilometres outside urban boundaries, and access diminishes dramatically.

Of the estimated 750,000 million non-city dwellers who live, work or farm anywhere between Northumberland County to the west to the Quebec border (excluding Ottawa), good broadband is a matter of good luck. How close are you to the nearest tower? Are there hills? Who are the heavy data users like teenagers, home entrepreneurs or commercial operators?

That’s why EORN, the not-for-profit Eastern Ontario Regional Network, has - as its mission - to bring improved broadband to the 1.1 million folks who live across this 50,000 square kilometer region (the same size as of Nova Scotia).

For a decade now, EORN has developed and delivered region-wide connectivity projects for businesses and homeowners through strategic public private partnerships. Governments and internet providers have already spent nearly 175 million to ensure basic internet for everyone. Another $200 million will help close the cell gap.

Recently, EORN took on the challenge of mapping every property location from residential, farm, commercial, and institutional to determine demand areas for internet in eastern Ontario. Purchasing MPAC data and engaging seasoned engineers, EORN knows not just how to meet the CRTC standard, but to go well beyond it with a gigabyte to every property.

Why invest in a gigabyte now, when many urbanites don’t even have it? As we all know, speed and capacity are the essential ingredients for high speed and a gig of bandwidth provides both. As opposed to incremental investments, a gigabyte is a game changer.

It enables more businesses to invest in rural Canada by maximizing their online presence. Governments can deliver virtual health care and other services more efficiently, and educators can provide content-rich teaching without a physical classroom. The agriculture and manufacturing sectors, increasingly reliant on GPS, IT and automation, can leverage cutting edge technology outside of the big cities.

The cost to bring a gigabyte to the 1 million plus folks in eastern Ontario is estimated at between $1.2 Billion and $1.6 Billion. To achieve the CRTC’s much lower 50-10 minimum standard is approximately $750 million.

EORN would expect that even at a gigabyte, based on past success, a tri-partite cost sharing arrangement with the federal/province governments and private sector would be the most likely.

Of course, these are still big numbers. Federal Minister Maryam Monsef, who is also the Member of Parliament for Peterborough-Kawartha and is responsible for Rural Economic Development, understands the urgency of the need. Already, her government has committed up to $6 billion to close the digital divide, a widely lauded investment.

But the reality is we must be willing to spend far more to future proof our economy, and ensure rural Canada is fully equipped to not survive but thrive in a post-pandemic universe.

It’s not lost on anyone that high speed broadband internet is crucial to a strong and diverse economy that connects Canada as much to itself as the world. With that in mind, we must take an ambitious and bold approach in the months and years ahead that is fully inclusive of the broadband infrastructure on which Canadians everywhere increasingly rely.