A conference hears many ideas for financing projects when communities want more than the incumbent provider offers, but they all boil down to one

Funding rural broadband: Whatever it takes

For rural communities looking to get ultra-fast broadband speeds increasingly seen in cities, there’s only one obstacle: Money.

Getting it is the trick.

Speakers at a rural broadband conference here, which wound up Thursday, had no shortage of ideas of how to get it, which boiled down to this: Whatever works.

The problem is some of the ideas just may not practical in small communities.

For example, there were envious glances when the CEO of Waterfront Toronto, which is revitalizing part of that city’s lakeshore with a housing project for 115,000 people, said it will provide residents with a combined 100 Mbps Internet service, telephony and television service for $100 a month starting in January.

How did it do it? The agency, which controls the 2,000 acre site and has $1.5 billion in seed capital from three levels of government, set the terms to a service provider. In return, the provider gets a captive customer base.

Then there’s Fredericton, N.B., twice named one of the world’s top intelligent cities after it installed its own fibre optic network early this decade. Why? Because Internet rates from incumbent carriers were too high for businesses and consumers.

How did it do it? The new network was paid for by the city. Within a year it had paid back the money and the city had an international reputation as a leading edge place for business.

Mayor Brad Woodside gave an enthusiastic presentation to the conference, saying the smartest thing a municipality can do is invest in infrastructure.

“Believe in yourself, believe in your community and make that dream come true,” he said.

A number of rural broadband case studies were presented, all of which required federal and/or provincial funding to get off the ground. Yet the future of this funding is up in the air. Ottawa’s current $225 million rural broadband fund closed this year. The recent federal budget said a new infrastructure fund will be created, but no money has been announced. It may be part of the soon-to-be announced federal digital economy strategy. Meanwhile the current version of Ontario’s Rural Connections program ends in September.

How, asked one conference attendee, can rural broadband projects be done without waiting for government funding approvals?

“If you wait for government it just doesn’t happen,” replied Darrin Graham, CEO of Ontario’s Orion research and education network. “You have to put a plan together and go to government and say ‘Here’s our plan, and we’re going ahead without you’ and shame them almost into saying ‘Yes, we’ll be part of it.’”

To be fair, speakers were unanimous in advising rural communities to be well armed with facts and a business plan before going to any level of government for financial help.

But in an interview at the conference, telecommunications consultant Laura Bradley – who helps rural municipalities with their broadband funding applications – said without government funding bringing broadband to rural communities likely won’t happen.

“A lot of networks won’t get built without financing from somewhere,” she said. “The private sector alone is not going to go out and build the kind of networks that (municipalities) are trying to get built in rural areas. They’re not interested.”

Rural communities need more than just the 1.5 Mbps average download speeds that the federal government defines as broadband. Unfortunately, she said, many are willing to settle for that, or can’t afford projects that will deliver close to Waterfront Toronto’s 100 Mbps.

She doesn’t say that governments necessarily have to provide rural broadband funding. Instead, she advises, “whatever way you can make it happen. Find money where you can.”

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