Regional fibre-optic project seeking more buy-in from Manitoulin communities

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IRON BRIDGE – Shovels should be in the ground next spring on the Huron Shores and Manitoulin Community Owned Fibre Infrastructure Corporation (H&M COFI) fibre infrastructure project for Huron Shores, Manitoulin Island and the North Shore area. Meanwhile, at a recent Billings Township council meeting, council debated the issue of moving forward and supporting the project in principle.

“It’s real, and things are moving ahead,” stated Georges Bilodeau, Mayor of Huron Shores and H&M COFI, in an interview with The Expositor recently. “It’s on the way. Shovels will probably be in the ground as of April or May of next year (2022).”

Mr. Bilodeau said he was part of a meeting earlier in the day with a team of about 20 people, including H&M COFI, federal and provincial representatives, and Rock Networks. “We discussed the mapping and technical stuff, the hydro poles and roads where this will be installed, basically all the paperwork for the project.” 

As was reported previously, H&M COFI has been awarded funding up to $91,077,421 through two government programs: Ontario’s Improving Connectivity for Ontario (ICON) program as well as the government of Canada’s Universal Broadband Fund (UBF). The funding for this program is part of a larger commitment announced by both levels of government, totaling $170 million. 

With this funding, H&M COFI will partner with Rock Networks to build a broadband network that will make available reliable and affordable high-speed internet to all underserved residents and businesses in the region.

Mr. Bilodeau noted that for the Manitoulin area, Whitefish River is a partner in H&M COFI as is Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, and some other municipalities on Manitoulin Island. 

Customers will have the opportunity to be able to get fibre infrastructure; however, for those municipalities and First Nations that don’t become partners in the project, they will not get the potential revenues from being a participating partner. 

“We have received an extensive report in our meeting package,” said Billings Councillor Bryan Barker, at a recent council meeting. 

“Regarding H&M COFI’s update, are there any municipalities or First Nations on the Island that have signed on (as a partner)?” asked Councillor Sharon Jackson.

Billings economic development officer Todd Gordon informed council, “yes there are, but it’s not clear to me who. I have asked and received confusing answers.”

Mr. Gordon explained the H&M COFI project “relies heavily on new fibre optic as its backbone. Their goal is to provide as much fibre to each home as possible.”

However, it was pointed out this fibre infrastructure could be very expensive.

JoAnne Matheson, H&M COFI board member stated in a letter to council dated September 22, “we understand that the Council of Billings Township has elected to not support H&M COFI’s construction of a broadband network, a network that would allow all communities in our catchment, including yours, access to reliable high-speed internet. COVID has emphasized how underserved the rural North is with respect to high-speed internet for personal, business, education and health care needs.”

“It is our hope that the following might help with your queries and change your mind about providing a letter of support (LOS) for this initiative,” wrote Ms. Matheson. “The plan to bring reliable and affordable high-speed internet to our largely underserved region started with this community. H&M COFI Inc., a non-profit corporation, was formed to apply for government funding to construct a new state-of-the art fibre broadband network. The network would serve the area from Garden River First Nation to Nairn Centre, including Elliot Lake and Manitoulin and St. Joseph Islands. While the Municipality of Huron Shores could have applied for funding to improve internet service along the North Shore corridor of Highway 17, it realized that most of its neighbouring communities also faced the same dilemma.”

On August 6 H&M COFI was the sole recipient of grant funding to bring high-speed internet to our region through a new state-of-the art network, continued Ms. Matheson. She explained that now that H&M COFI has been granted government funding, it will build a complete fibre network including connecting fibre to the homes and businesses of the communities outlined. This network will ensure that high-speed internet can be made available to all residents and businesses in the entire catchment area. Once the network is constructed and operating, consumers (home and business owners) will buy internet services from ISPs (internet service providers), only the ISPs that will be using the H&M COFI network. ISPs will pay a wholesale or floor rate to H&M COFI for the internet access they sell. 

“Although government funding has been announced, there are stipulations that the remaining First Nation communities and municipalities need to provide letters of support,” continued Ms. Matheson.  “These letters required for each community state that our region fails to be fully served by the minimum federal government broadband allowance of 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload speed, and that  the communities support the need for better service.”

“Without your support, your community appears to be stating that you either don’t need or want this services brought to your residents, businesses and organizations,” wrote Ms. Matheson. “During the construction phase of the H&M COFI project, its technical and engineering partner Rock Networks, will require access to your community to install the network. The letters of support is just that and not a financial commitment.”

Ms. Matheson explained H&M COFI has a secondary vision with this project to offer a chance for a “community owned fibre infrastructure” which would allow interested communities to see a return on an equity investment in the project. This is separate from the construction of the network.”

“There is no requirement for financial investment for this project to proceed in your community. The Ontario ICON program has asked for the remaining LOS for the project and as such we request your assistance in meeting their request,” wrote Ms. Matheson. 

Billings council agreed they would consider the request for a letter of support at a future meeting.