While funding welcomed, local reaction mixed as to whether it will mean improved broadband

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NORTHERN ONTARIO – Depending on who you talk to, an announcement by the provincial government last week of $1 billion being invested to expand broadband and cellular service across the province may or may not benefit the local Manitoulin Island area.

“It’s wonderful to see any money being provided for improved and upgraded broadband,” stated Susan Church, executive director of Blue Sky Network, which has been working with Manitoulin Island municipalities on getting upgraded and improved broadband for the Island. However, “the amount to provide this in all (underserved areas in) Ontario is not nearly what is needed.” 

“The devil is always in the details,” said Ms. Church. “I don’t know if it will be good or bad for this area until we see the details.” She noted that some of the announced funding includes funds announced previously, in programs like Swift (Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology) of $150 million, and $350 million for the Eastern Ontario Regional Network funding last year. The ICON funding program has also been topped up.

Ms. Church explained, “this leaves basically $600 million, which is a lot, but not if you think of how much it would cost to have fibre broadband for all of Manitoulin Island (a study recently released by Blue Sky Net pegged these costs at over $121 million).”
Georges Bilodeau, mayor of Huron Shores who is part of an effort to establish a public entity for the North Shore and Manitoulin said, “it is interesting that the province is putting more money into the pot for expanded broadband. They have indicated that they want to see valuable, viable projects go ahead.”
“Providing a billion dollars for broadband for Northern and rural areas by the province demonstrates that projects like ours is something that they have in mind for these funds,” said Mr. Bilodeau. “What’s interesting is that Hearst is doing what we want to do; Hearst received funding in the last few months and is setting up a municipality owned project for their municipality. We are still looking at a governance model being established then holding a meeting of all municipalities and parties that have shown an interest as to how to proceed with the Huron Shore and Manitoulin Island community owned fibre infrastructure (H&M COFI) broadband project.”

Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Michael Mantha said, “in the previous provincial budget, it had been announced that funding of $300 million would be provided in infrastructure funding for Northern Ontario, but none has been received or spent in Algoma-Manitoulin. So the announcement of $630-680 million in new funding is great, but if it is just an announcement and doesn’t get into communities it isn’t.”
“The good news is that MPP John Vanthof introduced a bill that would require a reporting process of how much, where and when the money that is announced is or has been spent,” said MPP Mantha. “Broadband has been identified as being essential and this bill would mean the government would have to be accountable and report where, when and how the money has been spent.”

The Ontario government has announced a historic investment of nearly $1 billion over six years to improve and expand broadband and cellular access across the province. The $680 million announced on November 4 is on top of the $315 million to support Up to Speed: Ontario’s Broadband and Cellular Action Plan. This funding will be used for shovel-ready projects staring in 2019-20, and will create jobs and connect unserved and underserved communities during COVID-19 and beyond.

Details were provided ahead of the release of Ontario’s 2020 budget by Premier Doug Ford, Rod Phillips, minister of Finance, Laurie Scott, Minister of Infrastructure and MPP for Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock, and Peter Bethlenfalvy, president of the Treasury Board.

“By providing high-speed broadband to unserved and underserved communities, we will create good jobs, unlock new opportunities for businesses and people, and improve the quality of life for individuals and families,” said Premier Ford. “With the world online these days if we’re going to attract more investment to Ontario and compete in this highly competitive global marketplace, we need every part of our province connected with high-speed internet.” 

The investment doubles funding for the Improving Connectivity in Ontario (ICON) program, bringing the new total to $300 million. This program now has the potential to leverage more than $900 million in total partner funding to improve connectivity in areas of need across Ontario. As part of Ontario’s broadband and cellular action plan, ICON is one of several provincial initiatives underway to improve connectivity across Northern, eastern and southwestern Ontario.

“Tomorrow (November 5), I’ll introduce Ontario’s 2020 budget, the next phase of Ontario’s Action Plan,” said Minister Phillips. “The first pillar of this action plan is protect, making good on Premier Ford’s commitment to do whatever it takes to get through the pandemic. The second pillar is support, because we know COVID-19 has brought severe challenges and economic difficulties to families and employers across the province. The third pillar is recover and includes today’s historic investment in broadband. Through initiatives like this our government is laying the foundation for a strong economic recovery and a successful future.” 

Over 1.4 million people in Ontario do not have broadband or cellular access, and as many as 12 percent of households in Ontario, mostly in rural remote or Northern areas, are underserved or unserved from the perspective of broadband, according to Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) data. 

“This investment will connect even more residents in communities across Ontario to faster, more reliable internet and cell service,” said Minister Scott. “Today’s commitment to connect more people to reliable broadband and cellular service-—along with many others we’ve made—will make it easier for more people to work and learn from home, run their businesses and connect with others.”