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In the News: IMPACT: Improvements coming to rural broadband in Peterborough County

As originally published in Peterborough This Week on Monday, January 20, 2020 by Bill Hodgins.

Concerns have been addressed in some areas but for others there is still frustration

lit fibre optic cableThe expertise that Heather Watson brings to the Kawartha community comes — at least in part — from her connection to the world of hi-tech.

Her company, acorn30, is geared towards marketing, websites and app creation. So, you can understand when there might be a little frustration when an internet satellite feed lags, even a little bit. It impacts a number of rural residents in Peterborough County.

“The issue is near and dear to me,” says Watson, who is also the Douro Ward representative on Douro-Dummer Township Council.

Some of her township’s residents have gone so far as to construct their own makeshift antennas, atop 20 and 30-foot polls, she says.The Eastern Ontario Regional Network (EORN), currently led by Peterborough County Warden J. Murray Jones, has taken notice. The group, which is an arm of the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus, identified rural broadband expansions as a priority and lobbied high levels of government to take action.

“This is a major problem for all of us in rural eastern Ontario,” the warden says. “That’s why the Eastern Ontario Warden’s Caucus created the EORN about 10 years ago.” “It’s made and continues to make huge progress in getting access to high-speed internet throughout the area,” Jones says. “As the demands increase, we are continually lobbying for more funding to address this issue. Residents of rural areas deserve the same access to high-speed internet and cell connectivity as those in urban areas.”

In 2015, EORN developed a 10-year digital strategy to ensure that improved broadband access will deliver economic growth and a better quality of life to Eastern Ontario communities.

EORN undertook an analysis of area mobile broadband and determined the upgrades are critical for economic development, business growth and job creation throughout the region. Its report stated that a rural broadband expansion project would create more than 3,000 full-time job equivalents over 10 years and more than $420 million in private sector business revenues. As well, the caucus said it would address a critical need for a dependable and secure communications network for emergency services. While the total cost of the project is estimated to reach as much as $299 million, the provincial and federal levels of government have made a commitment to assist in funding. The estimated municipal contributions from across Eastern Ontario would total approximately $10.1 million to $14.2 million.

This past summer, the federal government announced it would contribute $71 million towards rural broadband infrastructure in eastern Ontario. Canada’s Ministry of Rural Economic Development announced that the project would allow Eastern Ontario’s rural municipalities to be better connected and ensure that residents have improved access to online services and tools, whether at home or on the road. It came about a month after the province committed similar funds to the project.

Watson says there are spots in Peterborough County where change is coming. There is fibre-optic service now running through the heart of Warsaw, she says. It’s still frustrating for some who might live next door to the service, but can’t pay to get it routed to their homes. At the same time, by moving some former satellite customers to the fibre network, it’s freeing up space on the towers for those who can’t get the faster service.

“It was really bad before,” she says.

Now, service has improved, but there are still some limitations. With satellite, the area’s landscape will impact where line-of-site is an issue. But more towers can help address some of that problem.

Watson says Jones, also the mayor of her township, has worked hard to bring attention to the issue. The federal and provincial funding commitments will make a difference, so long as there is follow-through. She says the provincial funding isn’t triggered until the federal funds are on the table.

“As I understand it, the providers are ready to go. They’re waiting for nods from the prospective funding partners.”