Municipal leaders debate rival bids, broadband options for mid-North area

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MANITOULIN – The Manitoulin Municipal Association (MMA) and representatives of Blue Sky Net are concerned Manitoulin may be left out of being in line for upgraded internet services.

“Knowing what’s going on, my greatest fear is that we (Manitoulin Island) are going to get caught in the middle of all of this,” said Mike Addison, a member of the Blue Sky Net board of directors. He was speaking at a presentation with Blue Sky Net executive director Susan Church at last week’s MMA meeting.

Mr. Addison said he was concerned that many details about the Huron and Manitoulin Community Owned Fibre Infrastructure (H&M COFI) proposal remained unknown, including costs. This, despite many communities on Manitoulin Island and the North Shore having agreed to write letters of support-in-principle for the initiative.

“If we are part of the H&M COFI proposal and off the auction block for the Accelerated High Speed Internet Program, I’m afraid we will end up not being part of either or not get service from anyone,” he said.

The government is carrying out an Accelerated Highspeed Internet (AHSIP) program and Manitoulin is proposed to be part of it, but basically all of Manitoulin was included in the H&M COFI funding-approved project as well, the meeting was told. 

“I was not aware of this new AHSIP program,” stated Ken Noland, chair of the MMA.

Al MacNevin, Mayor of the town of Northeastern Manitoulin and the Islands (NEMI), said “in terms of the proposal from H&M COFI, “In the early stages our council provided a letter of support in principle. Then we heard news of $91 million being approved for their project for a fibre network for Manitoulin and the North Shore. And then they send us a letter outlining that if we contributed to their program, we would receive an unknown share of revenues. My council felt that we were not going to take the risk of spending a lot of money on this project without a proper business case.”

Ms. Church said of the H&M COFI proposal, “Georges Bilodeau indicated municipalities and First Nations can contribute and that they will share in the revenues, but not much revenues are made from broadband. My question is, who is going to provide the service and who is going to provide the rest of the funds required if not every municipality and First Nation contributes? I applaud the efforts of H&M COFI for moving on this whole issue but there needs to be some questions answered.” 

Ms. Church explained in her presentation that to assist in the development of a broadband strategy, Blue Sky Net, in conjunction with municipalities and First Nation communities on Manitoulin Island, issued a request for information (RFI) to obtain further information from regional ISP’s (internet service providers) to identify networks’ coverage, infrastructure and current or future project plans. The RFI was also intended to seek feedback from ISPs as to how the municipalities on Manitoulin Island could assist in supporting the expansion of private internet broadband service delivery for the region.” 

The RFI was directly delivered to 13 ISPs/telecommunication service providers known to operate services on or near Manitoulin Island, said Ms. Church. The deadline for submissions was June 30, 2021. A total of six submissions were received at that time. Between the mail out and the submission deadline, Blue Sky Net staff also conducted telephone and teleconference meetings with nine potential respondents. The intent of these conversations was to clarify expectations and format of the RFI submissions. It was also an opportunity to have a less formal conversation with the organizations. 

Ms. Church explained submissions included service options, pricing, cost and fee information, service area and infrastructure mapping and other relevant information, including current and proposed projects and proposed funding applications of various ISPs.

“I would like to highlight a couple of things that came out of the RFI,” Ms. Church told the meeting.  She pointed out all 13 ISPs contacted are available on the Island or nearby currently.

“Six of them responded and we met with them, and a couple didn’t reply because timelines were tight,” said Ms. Church. “One thing that came out is that everyone was interested in some level of participation in a Manitoulin Island-wide broadband infrastructure project, expanding the current network, or some new service or work with existing service providers. And all were interested in starting a dialogue between themselves and community representatives of Manitoulin Island.”

“Several respondents identified the importance of community representatives/leaders to advocate for the communities’ need for a better broadband service,” said Ms. Church. “And they really want to open the lines of communications with municipalities and First Nations.”

The ISPs that Blue Sky Network met with, “suggested adopting a long-term broadband strategy. Some points need to be considered with such a strategy. Several respondents identified that consistency amongst communities in permitting for tower siting and  access to utility right of ways as examples, would be helpful,” said Ms. Church. “Also they felt implementing a ‘dig once’ policy across the Island, especially with respect to roads, and ensuring key end goals and objectives are clearly communicated and understood.”

It was pointed out that responses came from a mix of direct-to-customer satellite, carrier level satellite, fixed wireless, cellular as well as wireline providers. Those that own and operate networks currently in the area and on the Island have a strategy to grow networks on the Island. “Several mentioned that they would be interested when and if funding were made available.”

While the MMA did not pass any motion on the entire issue, they will be making inquiries to the province on their questions and concerns raised at the meeting last week.

The Expositor received a reply from the Ministry of Infrastructure (MOI) on the concerns raised by the MMA. Sofia Sousa-Dias said in an email, “as a direct response to the concerns of our partners and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ontario has committed an historic investment totaling nearly $4 billion towards high-speed internet infrastructure that will ensure that every region in the province has access to reliable high-speed internet by the end of 2025.”

“As part of that investment, in July 2021, we announced a new innovative procurement process to help connect underserved and unserved communities,” wrote Ms. Sousa-Dias. “This delivery model is being led by Infrastructure Ontario, with procurement now underway.” 

“Households not addressed by exiting application-based funding programs from the Ministry of Infrastructure, like the Improving Connectivity for Ontario or ICON, will be captured through the procurement process underway. These efforts are part of the overall government approach to help ensure 100 percent of households across Ontario have access to high-speed internet by the end of 2025.”