Susan Church believes the complexity of getting Northern Ontario residents connected to fibre-optic internet service, considered by most to be the fastest available, can be summed up with an analogy.
Picture travelling on a 400 series highway, with a farmhouse in the distance as your destination. To get there, you can’t just drive off the highway directly to the farm. You have to first exit onto the nearest cloverleaf, and then find an access road. From there, you have to navigate your way to the sideroad where the farmhouse is located and, finally, the driveway that takes you to the house.
“It's no different with fibre connectivity,” said Church, the executive director at Blue Sky Net (BSN) in North Bay.
“You have those main fibres that run through the province, but you don't just chop into them and, bam, you have internet. You have to backhaul them; you have to find ways to connect to them; you have to find junctions where these wires will connect."
The problem is compounded by the exorbitant cost associated with installing new infrastructure, which is typically a public-private endeavour jointly supported by the federal government and internet service providers like Rogers or Bell.
But that doesn’t mean that Blue Sky Net has given up on trying.
BSN was incorporated in 2002 as a regional economic development organization.
As ICT services increased in importance to area communities, its mandate narrowed to focus on increasing access to broadband services across unserved and underserved areas. It’s one of five such organizations scattered across the North.
In September, BSN received $1 million from FedNor to keep operations going for the next three years.
To date, the group has helped to realize projects in more than 150 communities across its catchment area, which includes Nipissing, Parry Sound, Sudbury East and the Township of Muskoka Lakes.
Yet there’s still lots of work to be done.
“I don’t think a lot of the gaps have been closed,” Church said of service across the North. “The problem is, if it was inexpensive, if internet service providers could afford to do it on their own, it would be done. Therein lies the problem.”
There are two major challenges Northern Ontario faces when it comes to installing fibre, Church said: the area’s rugged topography – the vast lakes, hills, rocks, and trees – and its geography – there are far distances between populations.
According to BSN’s Broadband & Associated Infrastructure Mapping Analysis Project (BAIMAP), 72 per cent of properties in Northern Ontario have service at speeds greater than 5 megabits per second (Mbps).
Church said if all vacant properties are removed from that equation, the percentage drops down to 52 per cent, just over half of residents in Northern Ontario.
To put that into perspective, 5 Mbps is fast enough to check email, use social media and stream music.
But in a digital economy, when the internet is used for everything from conducting business to telemedicine to streaming your favourite TV show, 5 Mbps probably isn’t going to meet most people’s needs, Church said.
“When we first started trying to deliver infrastructure and upgrade broadband to areas that had nothing, we were, at best, looking for 1.5 megabits per second down, and if we achieved that we were having a good day,” Church said.
“Now we know, of course, with the way technology has gone…it just simply isn't enough.”
And with technology so rapidly evolving, internet service providers have to keep up, or it becomes useless, she added.
BSN is currently awaiting an announcement on the next rounds of government funding packages that might be available for new broadband expansion projects.
In the meantime, the organization is asking residents to test the speed of their current service by visiting ConnectedNorth.ca. It’s as easy entering your community name and address, and the site can determine the availability of service in your area.
Residents are also being encouraged to fill out an online survey that will gauge their internet usage and online habits.
All data gathered from those endeavours will be packaged and presented to potential funders and internet service providers to bolster the case for broadband expansion projects in Northern Ontario.
And for those who are still struggling with glacial internet service, Church has heartening news.
“They’re designed so that if you have really slow internet, it’s still going to work.”