How to build Ontario: The southwest needs broadband

Roughly 230,000 southwestern Ontario households don’t have internet access that meets the CRTC’s minimum targets — can the federal government help get projects online?
By Mary Baxter - Published on Sep 26, 2019
fiber optics
The CRTC sets minimum targets for internet access: 50 megabits per second for downloads and 10 megabits per second for uploads. (iStock.com/Thomas-Soellner)

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Every week until the 2019 Canadian election, TVO.org will look at the federal issues that matter to Ontarians. This week, we tackle infrastructure in a three-part series. Click here to read Part 1. Watch for Part 3 on Friday.

PERTH COUNTY — Bob Martin first had high-speed internet set up at his Perth County dairy farm a decade ago. He uses it to monitor his 100-cow herd remotely on camera, but the service has been spotty at best. “It does work. It’s just not constant: when you want it, it’s down or slow,” he says. “It’s hard to watch an animal when it’s stop and go.”

Research suggests that Martin is not alone in his frustration. Some 230,000 southwestern Ontario households are without internet access that meets the national minimum target set by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (50 megabits per second for downloads and 10 megabits per second for uploads).

In urban centres, internet quality has improved as big telecom companies, such as Bell and Rogers, have vied for new customers. In sparsely populated rural areas, however, infrastructure is costlier to build and maintain, and the number of potential customers is small. That provides little incentive for companies to improve service. “As the demand grows for more data and higher-quality data services, those [rural] networks start getting congested,” says Reza Rajabiun, an independent researcher specializing in rural internet access. Governments, Rajabiun says, are also part of the problem because they invest in networks or provide subsidies to the private sector to improve speeds without monitoring performance after.

Some companies are improving and expanding their networks, but, in most cases, these are small local efforts. For instance, five years ago, in Huron County, Tuckersmith Communications Co-operative established high-speed, fibre-optic internet service for its members near Seaforth. “We are extremely lucky,” says Ethan Wallace, a local dairy farmer who counts on the service to support the robotic-milking technology he uses for his herd of 100 Jersey cows.

A half-hour drive east, Quadro Communications, a co-operative based in Kirkton (which, like Tuckersmith, has roots in a century-old local telephone system) and Festival Hydro, a local electrical distributor, are installing high-speed, fibre-optic service in the town of St. Marys. “We had St. Marys circled with our current fibre-optic network, and so, logically, St. Marys was an attractive geographic target,” says Russ Barker, the co-operative’s chair, of Quadro’s expansion, which Festival finances.

Municipalities are also banding together. In 2011, the Western Ontario Wardens’ Caucus, a non-profit organization with 15 member municipalities, launched the SouthWestern Integrated Fibre Technology project. It initially focused on building a “backbone” for a fibre-optic network in the region. But many of those involved began to question the approach. “We were told by internet-service providers, by members, by different groups that where the real need lies is in what we call access to that backbone from the infrastructure of the internet-service provider to the resident,” says Barry Field, SWIFT’s chief operating officer.

Now, the organization focuses on filling in gaps, making connections from fibre-optic hubs to individual residences. This year, the caucus launched pilots in Norfolk, Wellington, and Lambton Counties. Roughly half the companies pre-approved to work on SWIFT projects are local. SWIFT estimates that it will need to spend $2.7 billion to ensure that southwestern Ontario is up to speed. To date, it has secured a fraction of that. SWIFT is undertaking a $209 million project to improve connectivity in the region, having received $127.4 million commitment through the Small Community Fund, a joint provincial and federal program. The rest of the funding is to come from the private sector, as well as from each of the region’s counties.

Service providers looking to expand, though, face another challenge: some of the already-small number of potential customers, Rajabiun says, have signed on to lower-quality broadband through past government-funded projects. That was what happened in St. Marys, the town’s mayor, Al Strathdee, says: until Quadro and Festival Hydro partnered, “No one was going to make the overall investment to guarantee that there would be a substantial network in the downtown core.”

The CRTC rolled out a five-year, $750 million broad-band infrastructure fund this year to help connect underserved regions, but, for 2019, it is limited to rural and remote communities in the far north. And CRTC’s criteria would rule out large swaths of southwestern Ontario regardless: if a 25-square-kilometre region has even partial access to internet at the basic-service threshold set by the CRTC, companies looking to expand there aren’t eligible for funding.

In December 2018, SWIFT asked the commission to review the criteria, but the CRTC denied the request. In a decision released in April, it said that, while it recognized that it was important “for all Canadians to have access to universal service objective-level broadband services,” it had determined that its role “is to fund projects in areas where Canadians would otherwise likely never get universal … objective-level service, in order to make the greatest impact with the funding available.”

Rajabiun hopes that the election will bring change — and a different approach. “My hope this time, regardless of whoever comes into power,” he says, “is they recognize that these are very scarce funds, that it’s better to have a systematic approach to monitoring what happens to them and… [ensure] that the public money leads to actual quality improvements.” 

Pirie Mitchell, the Liberal candidate for Perth–Wellington, the riding in which the Martin farm and St. Marys are located, says that his party has taken steps beyond the CRTC funds. He points to a 10-year, $1 billion investment in the Canadian Infrastructure Bank and a $1.7 billion commitment to the Connect to Innovate program. “We’re trying to make sure that there’s enough money and there’s enough motivation to get people set up.”

The riding’s New Democratic Party candidate, Geoff Krauter, says that municipalities worry that service will already be outdated by the time it arrives. “There’s lots of money that’s now been announced by provincial and federal governments, but, unfortunately, the key word is announced,” he says, adding that the NDP are committed to bringing high-speed service to rural Canada “without delay.”

Conservative incumbent John Nater did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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