By Ian Ross
Delivering high-speed telecommunications to remote northern communities would be the "great equalizer" in lowering social costs and encouraging economic development opportunities, says the director of a Timmins non-profit technology group.
NEOnet intends to rally the support of its regional clients and stakeholders to lobby for the delivery of state-of-the-art Internet services to Ontario's extreme north - a commitment which was previously made by federal politicians.
Maggie Matear says northern residents are being denied essential services that could be delivered through wireless, digital subscriber lines and high-speed cable infrastructure, which she considers the cornerstone of modern economic and human development.
Though federal industry minister Brian Tobin's ambitious $1-billion plan to connect the country with high-speed Internet access was portrayed as the big loser in last month's budget, Matear holds hope some money for remote telecommunications infrastructure may still be available in this spring's rumoured mini-budget.
Still, she was frustrated by a $110-million federal investment being allocated toward initiatives such as the CA*net4 project, a new generation of Internet broadband architecture designed to build a pipeline connecting all of the research institutions and universities, mostly in southern Canada.
"I think what they're doing is marginalizing us and making the (telecommunications) gap bigger between the haves and have-nots."
To that end, NEOnet is drumming up some grassroots support by asking its regional partners to write letters to their local MPs supporting a northern broadband investment.A sample letter is on NEOnet's Web site and can be downloaded and signed.
"People have to understand it's not an expense, it's an investment. You can spend the money now and reap the savings years from now, or you can keeping spending on travel, health, educational and social costs," says Matear.
Because of its population base Timmins is well-connected, with three fibre optic service providers, digital subscribers lines, high-speed cable and other wireless capabilities.
However, the outlying communities stretching north to the James Bay coast do not have the population base, nor do they have the business base to have Internet providers lining up at their door. In remote places such as Attawapiskat most residents cannot get Internet accounts because the community uses radio analog equipment for their telephone signal.
The lack of modern technology infrastructure presents a definite impediment to attracting new business, and adds to the development costs for mineral exploration companies.
From the health services angle, she says communities like Gogama, with overworked nurse practitioners, can only deliver a certain degree of diagnostic care. If teleconferencing links were available, residents could have access to specialists and universal medical services via high-definition video.
She ties the north's critical doctor and nurse shortage to this lack of professional support.
"All I want to see is an adequate telecommunications technology that makes education, medical and economic development opportunities in Northern Ontario (equal to what) they are in southern Ontario."
To prepare for the eventuality when federal broadband money is freed up, NEOnet intends to hire a consultant to prepare a regional needs assessment and solutions study for about 10 to 12 remote communities. "When the money becomes available, and we hope it will, these communities can step up to the plate and say, 'Here's the plan, we're ready to go,'" says Matear.