Ontario halts funding for rural broadband

High-speed Internet will not be coming to hundreds of rural and northern Ontario communities anytime soon after the Ontario government scrapped its Connect Ontario: Broadband Regional Access Program (COBRA), IT World Canada learned Tuesday.

Started in February 2003, COBRA was a three-year, $55-million program designed to assist communities in funding and deploying broadband networks in areas not covered by Internet service providers (ISPs).

Additionally, the government has axed its Connect Ontario: Partnering for Smart Communities (COPSC) program, formerly known as Connect Ontario, which helps communities set up free portals so citizens can access both government services and private businesses.

COBRA and COPSC projects currently underway will continue to receive their cash but no new ones will be funded.

However, it is the loss of COBRA that will be mourned more deeply by rural Canadians.

These program cuts will likely halt further expansion of broadband networks across hard to reach areas of the province, said Jim Green, director, Northwestern Ontario Region, Regional Networks for Ontario (RNO). The RNO is a non-profit coalition of communities that shares information and hosts discussion forums about topics such as gaining funding through COPSC and COBRA. Many northern communities don’t have entities that can pursue government funding for broadband, so the RNO does it on their behalf.

Bringing broadband to rural and hard to reach communities is good for business, Green said. Broadband access enables local businesses to reach a broader customer base as well as expands the employment opportunities for rural residents because it allows them to work remotely for companies in other areas.

Green noted that most self-supporting communities — defined as those that can obtain their own funding — have already gained broadband access. Additionally, he said that most Ontario communities which only needed a small subsidy to implement high-speed networks have also been wired for broadband access. However it is the communities where there is little or no business case — meaning no money — to deploy broadband networks that will suffer the most.

“In a lot of the places the funding makes the difference between a business case or not,” Green said. “Then there are places where, even with funding, [broadband] is going to be tough to maintain but we haven’t even reached that group yet.”

It is communities which most need the provincial government grants that are being left to rely solely upon the federal government to bolster coffers to help them obtain access to broadband.

Unfortunately the $105 million set aside in September 2002 for the Federal government’s Broadband for Rural and Northern Development pilot project is already spoken for. Beth Clarke, manager of community investments for the Broadband Program in Ottawa said, 58 projects are currently underway as part of the program, with each one including anywhere from one to 30 Canadian communities. As of now, there are no plans to extend the project, she said.

However, the Broadband for Rural and Northern Development agency has added a National Satellite Initiative (NSI) in conjunction with Canada’s Space Agency and Infrastructure Canada to bring satellite broadband to 400 communities areas that can’t receive it any other way, she said.

Additionally, she said the broadband agency is working with Infrastructure Canada to bring broadband to all of New Brunswick and to link rural schools in Newfoundland by high-speed Internet.

After these three projects are complete, plus provincial government initiatives, there will still be 1,700 communities left in Canada with no broadband access, Clarke said.

Ontario, however, still isn’t saturated with broadband, which is why COBRA will be missed.

“In my area — Northwestern Ontario — there are very few communities with broadband and quite a few without, so we’re all working together to get broadband access wherever there are groups of people living. The government initiative was certainly a good one from our perspective,” Green said.

Neil Trotter, spokesperson for the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, confirmed on Tuesday that the government has cut funding for these programs and would not say if funding would ever be reinstated under the current government.

Trotter would only say that Ontario is currently working with both the Federal government and municipalities to develop a new 10-year infrastructure plan. Trotter would not comment whether bringing broadband to hard-to-reach areas would be a part of this new plan.

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