Application for ambitious $1.6 billion broadband project for Eastern Ontario

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Pembroke — The Eastern Ontario Regional Network (EORN) is counting on ultra-fast Gig internet in the region and has submitted an ambitious proposal to the federal and provincial government for funding for a $1.6 billion project.

“A regional project is the best approach,” Renfrew County Warden Debbie Robinson noted on Monday morning following the submission of the proposal. “A county project alone would be hugely expensive.”

The project would use a competitive process to choose a telecommunications partner and maximize coverage across the region. In this massive undertaking, EORN seeks to fund the $1.2 to $1.6 billion project through a combination of funding, with $200 million each from the federal and provincial governments and the remainder from the Canada Infrastructure Bank and the private sector.

The timing is right according to the proponents, who are supported not only by the Eastern Ontario Warden’s Caucus, where Warden Robinson serves as chair, but also the Eastern Ontario Mayor’s Caucus and represent some 1.2 million people in the region.

“Every day we hear from our constituents about their frustrations with poor or limited high-speed broadband services,” a letter from Eastern Ontario wardens and mayors stated. “A co-ordinated, comprehensive regional project for the 113 municipalities of Eastern Ontario is the best way to address the challenge of getting the region from 65 per cent coverage with access to even 50/10 speeds to 95 per cent coverage.”

Right now, both the federal and provincial governments are investing in broadband. The federal government established the Universal Broadband Fund (UBF) and the Government of Ontario created the Improving Connectivity in Ontario (ICON) fund. Both funds focus on local projects. EORN is seeking support through a flexible use of these programs, or any other appropriate funding streams.

“We appreciate how committed both governments have been to improving broadband access,” said Warden Robinson, in her role as chair of the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus (EOWC). “We all share the same goals, and we look forward to working together on a solution that is both comprehensive and cost-effective.”

Delivering Gig service generally involves a fibre optic or cable connection to the home or business. The EORN Gig Project leverages previous investments in infrastructure and services. This includes a fibre 2 optic backbone and other infrastructure across the region built to handle the speed and capacity of the Gig project. EORN anticipates it could provide up to 95 per cent of the region or more than 550,000 premises with Gig service by 2025-2026 if fully funded.

The County of Renfrew has had huge success in the past with EORN projects bringing broadband to the area but recently there has been some concern the province is looking at individual areas to develop their own projects instead of having this more regional approach which has worked so well. Last Wednesday at Renfrew County council there was some discussion on having a Renfrew County plan and developing a local plan to bring in broadband. Warden Robinson noted the collaborative approach and regional approach through EORN is the best way to bring broadband to the area, but there still needs to be a back up plan.

“We are going to look at a broadband strategy for the county in conjunction with what is happening here,” she said. “You don’t want to put all your hopes on one project.”

Warden Robinson said while there is funding available from the provincial and federal government, EORN is looking for a provider to work with. The goal is to have the same reliable broadband service people in the larger cities take for granted.

Having a regional project also means broadband would be delivered in areas where people actually live and work in Eastern Ontario and not just where the telecom providers decide to invest.

“A patchwork process in the area would be telecom providers building out from existing infrastructure,” she said.

That strategy means areas with little or spotty coverage might not see much improvement. In Renfrew County there are still areas with no access to reliable broadband. For anyone trying to work from home, participate in a virtual meeting or access the internet the way people in more built-up urban areas take for granted, the poor connectivity is very frustrating, she said. With a prevalence of ZOOM or virtual meetings for the last year, the importance of reliable broadband has been highlighted, the warden added.

“On Wednesday, during county council even my internet connection at the county was showing up as unstable,” she said, noting she was in the County of Renfrew building just outside Pembroke. “You can’t conduct business like that.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced people to work from home or spend more time at home. As well, students are learning from home and people are moving to rural areas. All this has made the need for faster broadband all the more urgent.

“We can grow, but not without decent broadband,” Warden Robinson said. “If we have that here, the growth would be incredible.”

Speed is an issue and that is why this Gig project is being pursued. Instead of going for slightly faster speeds, the goal is to fix the system with the speed required not just in 2021 but for years to come.

“Speed is important and even people who think they have good broadband discover it is not as good as they thought,” she said. “So why not fix the problem now for the long term?”

EORN covers all of Eastern Ontario and is currently working on a $213 million project, funded by the public and private sector to improve and expand cellular services across the region. From 2010 to 2014, EORN helped improve broadband in Eastern Ontario with a $175 million public-private partnership.