High-speed fibre internet coming to Manitoulin

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Island part of $140 million internet expansion to service most communities

IRON BRIDGE—The days of watching that spinning circle interrupt your favourite streaming show as it buffers down the clogged pipes of a Manitoulin Island internet connection may be over as soon as this fall.

It has been a long hard haul, often against some heavy winds of cynicism, but Huron Shores Mayor Georges Bilodeau can feel some sense of vindication as shovels will be going into the ground at the beginning of May to provide communities along the North Shore and Manitoulin Island with high-speed broadband through fibre to the home.

The Huron Shores mayor has been advocating for high-speed internet options for the region for several years, confident its arrival will bring an economic boom to Manitoulin and the North Shore—especially since the pandemic has proven that most 21st Century jobs and businesses can be performed digitally.

“ROCK Networks of Ottawa is starting construction at the beginning of May,” confirmed Mayor Bilodeau. “The fibre will be going right though to Sault Ste. Marie and making its way down to Manitoulin Island. It will be circumnavigating the Island to all of the communities that are on the main highway loop. It will be hitting just about everybody.”

Mayor Bilodeau noted the endeavour began over two years ago and has been gaining momentum and support ever since. “We have 11 First Nations on board and letters of support for communities across Manitoulin and the North Shore,” he said. “Whitefish River First Nation has been a strong supporter right from the start and Wiikwemkoong has come on board strong as well.”

He and his wife were instrumental in setting up Huron Shore and Manitoulin Island Community Owed Fibre Infrastructure (H&M COFI), a not-for-profit that has acted as a vehicle to get the project off the ground. As a regional broadband network H&M COFI is focused on building a broadband network within the area encompassing Nairn Centre to Echo Bay, including Manitoulin Island, to improve economic growth and access to health and educational services.

Mayor Bilodeau said he had hoped that municipalities would come on board as equity owners, citing strong earning potential in future years, but he admitted that getting municipalities into business ventures is counterintuitive to the mindset of small rural councils.

“They tend to be very cautious when it comes to spending money,” he said. “Even mine, but I am still working on them,” he laughed.

“But it doesn’t matter, the funding is all in place and everything is a go,” said Mayor Bilodeau. “The cost of the project is $140 million and the provincial and federal governments have put in $91 million. The CIB (Canada Investment Bank) is on board.”

Mayor Bilodeau explained that getting municipalities to invest is complicated by the rules and regulations in the Municipal Act surrounding such investments. “They have to set up an economic development corporation and grant the money to that organization to invest,” he said. “It’s very regulated.”

Mayor Bilodeau credited support from health care officials such as Manitoulin Centennial Manor and former Manitoulin Health Centre CFO Tim Vine with helping to make the project a reality.

Mayor Bilodeau said that building key infrastructure like the fibre optic network takes “people with vision who are willing to go out on a limb” which he admits is not in the makeup of the average municipal councillor or mayor.

He noted that the fibre optic connection will bring speeds with a potential far beyond the initial goal of 50-10, that’s 50 megabits download and 10 upload, the minimum where the upper tier governments have set the bar. “You will be able to get one gigabyte downloads,” he assured The Expositor. “That will bring huge economic opportunities for our region of the North.”

That will be welcome news for all of those Manitoulin Islanders who are sick and tired of watching ‘the wheel of doom’ go round before getting on with the show.