Election leveraged to push for faster rural internet access

SWIFT has been slowly connection Southwestern Ontario by fibre optic.

It’s been almost two years since speedy broadband internet connections were promised to every corner of Southwestern Ontario.

But so far, the rollout has been about as slow as the old-fashioned dial-up connection, and the agency behind it is hoping to use the upcoming provincial election to throw a spotlight on the need to provide good internet access to rural Ontario - writes lfpress.com

This week Southwestern Ontario Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT) released a position paper to prod the major political parties into making a commitment to speeding up rural internet access.

“We want their platforms to include a strategy to finish what SWIFT is starting so rural folks get the capacity they need to connect to school and government. It’s not reasonable to expect rural people won’t have the same ability to connect as urban folks,” said SWIFT executive director Geoff Hogan.

In July 2016 the federal and provincial governments promised funding for a $281-million project that will extend broadband fibre optic access to more than 300 communities with a total population of 3.5 million. Since then municipalities have kicked another $18 million to bring the total project to about $300 million.

Hogan said the first contracts to install the main corridors of fibre optic line will not be announced until late this summer and will take at least another two years to complete.

Only then will work begin for all the branch lines to connect all rural communities. Some of the lines will be installed above ground and some below ground, depending on the terrain and the cost.

Hogan noted the project, announced in 2016, had a five-year timeline, but he said the planning for the installation contracts to local telecom companies has taken longer than anticipated.

“It’s going a little slower than we hoped, but we really want to be sure we do this right.”

But Hogan said even after SWIFT’s $300-million program is completed, it will not be enough to connect everyone in the region.

“This is not going to get everyone connected in Southwestern Ontario. People wanted to be connected tomorrow.”

Hogan has heard stories of rural parents driving to cafes in urban areas just so their kids can get Wifi access to finish their homework.

The latest provincial budget unveiled last week committed $500 million to extend broadband access across Ontario, but most of the funds were targeted to eastern and northern Ontario with nothing specific for Southwestern Ontario.

“That’s $500 million for the whole province. We have $300 million just for the southwest and it’s not enough,” said Hogan Alex Benac, a spokesperson for Infrastructure Minister Bob Chiarelli, said details of the broadband infrastructure funding and a draft of provincial broadband strategy will be released later this year. But he conceded the province has a ways to go.

“We have made significant investments and made major improvements, but we know there is more that must be done to connect everyone in Ontario to fast, reliable internet,” he said in a statement.

London West MPP Peggy Sattler said there is nothing so far in the NDP policy platform dealing with broadband access, but she said the party recognizes the need for SWIFT.

Sattler, a former school board trustee, said students in small rural high schools need access to online courses not offered in their schools. She said only 181 of the 4,900 schools in Ontario have been wired for broadband internet access.

Lambton-Kent-Middlesex MPP Monte McNaughton said his party’s platform has not been announced, but the PCs support better broadband access in rural Ontario.

He said the Liberals government’s Jobs and Prosperity Fund should be used to improve internet access across the province, instead of handing out grants to individual companies.

“It would create a level playing field for all companies to grow,” he said.

McNaughton said he constantly get calls from residents, farmers and small businesses who need better internet access.

“It’s been promised for years and the people in rural Ontario aren’t seeing those promises being met.”

hdaniszewski@postmedia.com

twitter.com/HankatLFPress

Percentage of population using fibre optic for broadband internet access

Canada: 10.4 per cent

United States: 11.1 per cent

Switzerland: 13.1 per cent

Mexico: 17.3 per cent

Turkey: 18.8 per cent

Australia: 28.5 per cent

Spain: 40 per cent

Norway: 40.6 per cent

Sweden: 58 per cent

Korea: 75.6 per cent

Japan: 76.2%

– Source: Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development

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