Ontario region looks to boost rural broadband


KING CITY, Ont. – Around the world communities are racing to bring broadband to business and homes in the belief that faster speeds on the information highway is the path to prosperity

That’s why representatives of York Region, a sprawling district north-west of Toronto with 1.1 million residents that includes offices of some of the biggest names in IT, is holding a two-day meeting here to find out how it can keep up with if not beat other communities across the country and around the world in broadband.

Leading-edge countries are planning speeds of at least 100 Mbps, the conference was told, while Canada waits for the federal government to announce its digital economy strategy.

“We here to talk about taking York Region to the next level,” Doug Lindeblom, the region’s director of economic development, said in an interview during the conference.

In particular the focus is on finding ways to help bring faster speeds to the six small jurisdictions in the northern part of the region, such as cottage country townships of Georgina and East Gwillimbury. Broadband is less of a problem for York’s biggest town, Markham, where IBM Canada is headquartered.

The hope is that bringing ultra-fast broadband to York’s rural communities will bring more of the economic activity there that the southern part of the region has earned.

King Township, where the conference is being held, illustrates some of the problems in the region. The biggest physical jurisdiction in York, it has a population of 20,000. But, said township mayor Steve Pellegrini said in an interview, only half have access to high speed Internet. And 95 per cent of the township is residential, he added.

“The thing is a lot of people have home businesses,” he said. “However, it’s becoming a limitation to some people because there isn’t the bandwidth they need.”

“We’re recognizing it’s critical to expand what we have to maintain and create prosperity,” Lindelbom said.

That’s why the region’s just approved 40-year vision statement which includes a goal of “facilitating the development of an advanced telecommunication technology infrastructure to support the innovation network across the region.”

The question is how to do it when a local government is not a telecom carrier. There are ongoing consultations with the region’s municipalities on that, and this conference is one way of gathering ideas from other Canadian jurisdictions that have begun to bring ultra-fast broadband to residents.

One way, Lindeblom said, might be to tie the broadband networks of York’s municipal, regional, school boards and hospitals together.

Speakers Wednesday included officials from the city of Waterloo, Ont., which in 2007 was named the world’s most intelligent city in an annual global competition; from the region of Windsor-Essex, struck hard by the recession but which fought back and was named in 2011 one of the top seven intelligent regions in the world; and from an Eastern Ontario coalition of small counties which, with the help of federal and provincial funds, is expanding a fibre optic network.

The conference was organized by York Region, the province of Ontario and iCanada, an independent agency aimed at encouraging Canadian jurisdictions to share lessons learned in becoming so-called smarter communities that leverage information technology.

Broadband alone won’t bring innovation to a community, several speakers told the conference. But it does enable advanced technologies such telemedicine and video conferencing.

In fact iCanada chair Bill Hutchison spoke to the conference via video link from Moscow, where he’s helping the government there.

Hutchison, a judge on the international intelligent communities competition, noted this year three of the seven nominees are Canadian cities. “We’re punching above our weight significantly,” he said.

Unfortunately, he added, in many parts of Canada broadband is like a gravel road rather than a superhighway. “Unless we get proper broadband in Canada – not just in big cities – we will never be a major nation from an economic and social point of view.”

What York Region politicians and bureaucrats also heard were mini-case studies from Ontario jurisdictions that decided to act rather than wait for incumbent phone or cable companies to bring ultra high speed broadband to them. Often they found money from Industry Canada and the province of Ontario to fund fibre optic installations or fixed wireless coverage through public-private partnerships.

For example, a group of counties west of Ottawa formed the Eastern Ontario Regional Network and pulled $110 million from Industry Canada and the province to help fund the expansion of fibre optic across the 50,000 sq. km. region after discovering 300,000 homes didn’t have access to broadband. With another $50 million from the private sector, the district was able to contract with Bell Canada and Bell Aliant to install a Gigabit Ethernet backbone that will be used by a wholesale access provider. It will sell access to wired and wireless Internet service providers. The project is half finished.

After the first day of speakers, King township mayor Pelligrini was satisfied with what he heard. “It is about partnerships and collaboration,” he said he learned. And York Region’s six northern municipalities are already collaborating on putting up cash to find a way to bring ultra-high broadband to their areas.

And he isn’t counting on help the federal digital economy strategy will include more rural broadband funding.

“You have to be proactive,” he said, “we can’t wait. We’ve got to forge ahead ourselves.”

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of ITWorldCanada.com and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including ITBusiness.ca and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@] soloreporter.com

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