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'Have a plan, have a road map' to expand northern broadband, says expert

Community partnerships best way to tap into billions available in federal funding to grow rural broadband networks
internet 2016
(Stock photo)

Under High-Speed Access for All: Canada’s Connectivity Strategy, the federal government has promised 90 per cent of Canadians will have access to high-speed internet by 2021.

But Paul Ouimette cautions Northerners against raising the victory flag just yet.

“Don’t get excited,” said the director of operations at NEONet, a broadband strategy group in Timmins. “We are likely not, for the most part, in that group.”

Ouimette was speaking during the State of Broadband Conference 2020 – Northeastern Ontario, held in New Liskeard on Feb. 6.

The afternoon event brought together representatives from municipalities and First Nations, internet service providers (ISPs), and other interested parties to discuss the future of broadband in northeastern Ontario.

Ouimette does believe Northerners may have a chance to get in on the next target group under the strategy, which promises high-speed access – 50 megabytes per second (Mbps) download speeds and 10 Mbps upload speeds – for 95 per cent of Canadians by 2026.

The hardest to reach areas are expected to be caught up by 2030.

In some cases, new infrastructure will need to be installed, while in other areas, existing infrastructure might just need to be upgraded, Ouimette noted.

“But at the end of the day, everything takes money, and sometimes a lot of it, to make things happen,” he said.

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Through Canada’s Connectivity Strategy, the federal government is making $5 billion to $6 billion available for new investments into rural broadband.

To access those funds, consultant Amedeo Bernardi strongly suggests communities start striking up partnerships, as group submissions for projects will gain more traction than smaller, one-off initiatives.

A former executive with the Ontera telecommunications network, Bernardi launched Bridging the Digital Divide Canada last fall, a conference dedicated to tackling broadband-related issues.

Over the course of the three-day event, Bernardi said, one theme kept returning to the forefront: collaboration.

“Communities need to come together to jointly make applications for the scarce funding pools that are coming available,” said Bernardi, who consults with community groups on their broadband strategies through Amedeo Bernardi Consulting.

“Have a plan, have a road map, size up the problem, and come together, regardless of your topographies or proximity.”

Partners can be hundreds of kilometres apart, he noted, but if they work together on a common project, they can score higher with the government’s project assessors than if they work alone.

For example, one of his clients, B.C.’s Connected Coast, comprises a group of 130 communities spread out along the West Coast of Canada. 

The project proposes installing more than 3,400 kilometres of subsea fibre-optic cable, stretching from Prince Rupert to Vancouver, and then around Vancouver Island.

In total, the $45.4-million project is expected to benefit up to 175,000 residents of British Columbia.

Funding for the project is being provided by the Government of Canada’s Connect to Innovate (CTI) program, Indigenous Services Canada, and the province of B.C.

Community collaborations are exactly what residents in the Temagami area are trying to do.

The Town of Temagami and nearby Temagami First Nation have teamed up to try to make a stronger case for building up broadband access in the area.

But without buy-in from other communities, Temagami Mayor Dan O’Mara has little hope they’ll be successful in accessing government funds.

“Funding is limited, and only so many projects will be approved,” O’Mara said.

“So for Temagami to take its proposal and try and go forward right now to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (Broadband Fund), we've been told that we wouldn't have much chance of getting approval.”

He’s urging other communities to join them, in spite of the long road ahead, to create some positive momentum and see if they can make a difference in their communities.

“Somebody needs to take this bull by the horns and corral it,” he said. “Working together is necessary to find a solution, but it’s not going to be easy or cheap.”