A plan to expand internet and cell phone service

By MPP Toby Barrett

The Ontario government has announced plans to improve and expand internet and cell phone service in rural and remote communities.

For years, I’ve been hearing from people in the riding – and I hear these complaints in my own home as well – about poor service. This announcement will help families stay connected. It’s going to help students with their homework. It’s going to help both large and small businesses and farms be part of Ontario’s digital economy.

Too many people in rural and remote communities do not have access to reliable internet access. It means they can’t work from home, stay connected to family and friends, or access public services such as health care and education. In our increasingly digital world, being disconnected means being disadvantaged. This must change.

The investment of $315 million in this plan includes $150 million for a new broadband program, which will leverage private sector funding along with support from other levels of government to drive investment and expansion in unserved and underserved communities.

We are one step closer to bringing better internet service to Norfolk County, through Request for Proposals for up to $8.3-million in broadband infrastructure. Norfolk is part of SWIFT – a partnership of Southwestern Ontario municipalities, also including Caledon, Six Nations, the Niagara Region, London, Waterloo and Windsor. The aim is to enable the expansion of fibre-optic networks by lessening the financial burden on service providers when it is too expensive to build high-speed infrastructure due to the large distances between customers.

Haldimand County did not opt into the SWIFT program. They also have considerable issues with connection and have planned a separate initiative.

Agriculture is increasingly high tech with the rise of precision agriculture. As farming becomes increasingly land and labour intensive, technology also needs to be far more controlled and accurate in systems like GPS guidance, sensors, robotics, drones and autonomous vehicles like tractors.

Farmers can’t remain compliant and competitive when they can’t effectively do business online or file documents. Modern agriculture requires connectivity for a variety of jobs, checking the weather, checking the markets. Affordable broadband is essential across rural Ontario to access e-commerce, close deals, process payments, share information and connect with customers and with markets.

The CRTC reports that 98 per cent of Ontario households have access to the most basic download speed of at least 5 Mbps. But, at that speed, people have difficulty sharing files by e-mail, let along streaming videos or making connections via Skype. About 12 per cent of households cannot access the standard of 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload.

Low population density, geography and technology limitations can make it too expensive for private-sector providers to expand their networks.

Connecting communities often requires running fibre optic cables long distances, typically buried in the ground or attached in the air to hydro poles. Ontario has the highest hydro pole attachment rates in Canada. These costs are also a financial barrier to expansion in rural, remote and northern areas. Complex permitting and approval processes can also create challenges.

This is why our government is stepping in to help find innovative solutions to incentivize private sector investment to ensure businesses and people have access to the high-speed internet they need.

Toby Barrett is MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk