The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified how critical reliable high-speed broadband Internet is for Ontario residents, businesses and communities as well as the shortcomings of the service in rural areas, municipal leaders in Grey County say.
“With more people working from home, shopping from home and learning from home, broadband should be, I believe, looked upon as an essential service for all residents and businesses,” said Meaford Deputy-mayor Shirley Keaveney.
“We often hear about communication – how do we reach people who don’t have access to high-speed or no Internet at all? This current state of emergency really proves how necessary good Internet is.”
Grey County council, during its recent committee of the whole meeting, approved a motion by West Grey Mayor Christine Robinson to issue a “call to action” to Ontario Premier Doug Ford and his government to “champion the implementation of broadband” in the unserviced and under-served parts of Grey County.
The motion notes that Grey County families and businesses need reliable, affordable broadband “now more than ever in our increasingly electronic world” to conduct business and stay connected both locally and beyond.
“We’re advocating to the provincial government, saying loud and clear on behalf of Grey County residents and business owners that broadband is essential; infrastructure is essential and this is one of the actions we can take as a Grey County council to show our action that broadband is important,” Robinson said.
She said she acknowledges the work of the Western Ontario Wardens’ Caucus and its South Western Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT) project to expand broadband to under-serviced parts of Ontario.
“But it takes more and it does take our role in it as well to identify the need up here in Grey County,” she said.
The motion will now go to the June 11 Grey County council meeting for a final vote.
If approved, the call to action will be sent to Ford, Ontario Infrastructure Minister Laurie Scott, Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Minister Ernie Hardeman, Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MPP and associate energy minister Bill Walker. It will also be circulated to all Ontario municipalities.
SWIFT, initiated by the wardens’ caucus, is a $209-million broadband expansion project aimed at increasing access to high-speed connectivity in rural areas in southwestern Ontario, including Grey County.
The federal and provincial governments have both committed $63.7 million to the project, while private-sector service providers are contributing $63.7 million and municipalities are covering $17.6 million.
SWIFT subsidizes the construction of open-access high-speed networks to encourage service providers to expand broadband infrastructure in under-served rural areas.
SWIFT officials say there are nearly 230,000 under-served premises in southwestern Ontario and the project intends to connect 50,000 of those homes and businesses with current funding.
But it would cost about $2.7 billion to “fiberize every under-served road” in the southwestern Ontario region, a SWIFT spokesperson said. That amount could be reduced by using wireless broadband in certain areas.
Western Ontario Wardens’ Caucus chair Jim Ginn wrote in a May 14 letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that increased funding from both the provincial and federal governments is urgently needed to address the region’s “large connectivity gaps, so that we can close the digital divide and restart our economies” in the wake of COVID-19.
Ginn said the SWIFT model works, delivers results and can be immediately leveraged to upgrade networks and coverage in southwestern Ontario’s under-served areas.
Like Robinson’s motion, Ginn’s letter says COVID-19 – which has required people to self-isolate and work and learn from home – has underscored the need and urgency to address gaps in broadband services across the region.
“COVID-19 has put a spotlight on substandard broadband services available in rural Canada and it has become very apparent that people living in rural Ontario are at a disadvantage. The digital divide has never been more apparent,” Ginn wrote.
Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound Conservative MP Alex Ruff said Trudeau’s Liberal government could be doing much more to close that digital divide.
He noted Trudeau visited Owen Sound just before the last federal election to discuss expanding broadband with local business owners.
“Their plan is to have everybody to have rural broadband by 2030 – a decade from now. And that’s just ridiculous,” Ruff said.
He said a Conservative call to action, entitled Connect Canada and championed by MP Michelle Rempel Garner, includes 14 recommendations for the federal government, aimed at connecting all Canadians to reliable, affordable Internet access by the end of 2021.
Ruff has been collecting comments on the plan from his constituents and said he has consolidated them into four pages of feedback that he will now send to Rempel.
“Everybody was very happy with the proposal,” he said.
Grey County’s motion says broadband is a contributing social and economic driver in supporting the vitality and growth of our communities and is required by families to enable their children to complete school assignments, take online courses, maintain a human connection or stream movies at home and the agricultural and medical sectors to support and ensure business continuity and success.
Internet connectivity has been a “lifeline” for businesses and sectors with access to reliable broadband during the global pandemic, the motion says, and it will continue playing an essential role in the economic and social recovery of communities across Grey County post-pandemic.
Yet not all parts of Grey County are within a connectivity coverage area – a challenge amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic – and the county has unserviced areas as well as under-serviced areas that receive inadequate or disproportionately low levels of service.
“I believe that the type of infrastructure initiative before us and the timeframe to successfully produce the required results for our rural communities as well as our primary settlements in Grey County will need the actions of our provincial government to champion the implementation for us,” Robinson said before county council voted to support her motion.
Hanover Deputy-mayor Selwyn Hicks, Grey County’s representative on the SWIFT board, said when it comes to affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband connectivity, there are both “have and have-not” communities in Grey.
“But if we are all going to make it, if we’re going to make it as a county, it’s absolutely imperative that everybody has broadband capacity that is robust, that is dependable and that is affordable,” he said.