Published May 26 2020
Jamie Schmale Member of Parliament for Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock held a virtual town hall on the topic of better rural internet access via video conferencing software Zoom on May 20. There was also a phone-in option for those who have poor internet connection or none at all.
The goal of the town hall was to seek input from community members who were able to submit questions before and during the event. Presented during the town hall was the Conservatives’ “Connect Canada” plan a collection of calls to action asking the federal Liberal government to make fast and reliable internet available to all of rural Canada by 2021.
“We think as a country we should go forward with the idea of improving rural connectivity” said Schmale in his opening remarks.
During the town hall Schmale was joined by Jeremy Patzer MP for Cypress Hills-Grasslands in Saskatchewan; Michelle Rempel Garner MP for Calgary Nose Hill; and Lisa Severson communications and stakeholder relations officer for the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus.
Before getting into politics Patzer had 10 years of experience in the telecommunications industry and is currently a member of the standing committee on industry science and technology. Garner is the Shadow Minister (Opposition critic) for Industry and Economic Development. Garner was the MP who first brought forward the “Connect Canada” plan. Severson was involved with the Eastern Ontario Regional Network project a $172 million network completed in 2015 that aimed to improve high-speed internet access across Eastern Ontario.
Patzer spoke about the future of internet technology and how the government might go about getting infrastructure in place so that residents in more remote areas such as some parts of Haliburton County would no longer have to use rocket sticks for internet access.
“Fixed wireless technology is where a lot of the growth and where the opportunity is … I think that’s where a lot of the industry is looking to go. There’s obviously going to be a huge need for investment into the backbone of the network … in order to provide the consistent and reliable speeds that people require and rely on” said Patzer. “That would provide you with an in-home router as opposed to relying on a simple rocket stick that you plug into your laptop or your PC to get that service.”
For areas even more remote than Haliburton Patzer says that satellite is the way of the future.
According to Patzer one of the main issues with internet service in Canada is that even once it becomes available in a rural area there is a lack of choice for the consumer.
“Especially if you live in a rural community or you’re out you’re out at the farm … most of the time … you only have one provider that’s investing in your area and then that will lead into that predatory pricing issue that we raised up where maybe one of the other companies says well hey we can serve that area” said Patzer. “So they’re gonna come in and undercut the company that has made a huge investment to get the infrastructure in place and push it out of town and then your service will be reduced because they’re not going to be able to provide that same level of service.”
The CRTC has a mandate for the level of service Canadians should have. It declared that the internet is a basic telecommunications service and set targets across the country for download speeds of at least 50 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of at least 10 Mbps. They also want companies to offer the option of unlimited data. When they made this announcement way back in 2016 they estimated that two million Canadians did not have access to these speeds. At the town hall there was speculation that this number could be even higher today.
It is possible for municipalities to use taxpayer funding to build the infrastructure required for high-speed internet access then bring in a company to provide service – some municipalities in Canada have agreed to a tax hike in order to do this. However this is a lot easier in areas with a higher population density.
“We know that for Haliburton County itself to bring them up to that 50/10 … it would cost them $65 million to hit that 50/10 CRTC mandate” said Severson. “So I think continued [federal and provincial] funding is a necessity to make this a reality.”
Based on the 2016 census the most recent one available Haliburton County has a population of 18062 and a population density of just 4.4 people per square kilometre. If every single person in Haliburton County agreed to a tax hike to hit the $65 million needed for the county to build the necessary infrastructure for high-speed internet access it would cost each person around $3600. In reality that number would be even higher since all 18062 residents of the county aren’t taxpayers. To make a long story short the tax hike required would be far too high for the vast majority of the population.
Deputy Mayor of Dysart et al Pat Kennedy said that because of COVID-19 there has been a realization of how important getting high-speed internet and cell service to the county is. “What we’re finding is that a lot of big companies don’t need to be downtown Toronto … if their employees have access to high speed internet and get cell signal they can work from home” said Kennedy. “The thing with our students not going back to school high speed internet is imperative for students to do online learning. And I believe that we need to be at the forefront of this as we move forward.”
Kennedy said that the low population density and high per capita cost have been barriers for getting internet service providers to the region. He also said that the topography of the region hinders the tower-to-tower transmission of signal. “You just can’t efficiently deliver high speed internet when the houses are a mile apart. That’s a big challenge here” said Kennedy.
Despite these challenges Kennedy commended the efforts of some of the smaller local internet service providers who he said have a great reputation for providing quality service to consumers.
“I’ve had lots of talks with [Schmale] about the internet. He fully realizes how important it is to rural Canada and not just rural Ontario” said Kennedy. “Hopefully they keep pitching to the federal government just how critically important the internet is hopefully we get something happening soon. It’s been a pet peeve of mine for years. So any movement is better than no movement.”
EORN is undertaking a $213-million project to fill all gaps in cellular internet connectivity throughout Eastern Ontario including the county which is scheduled to be completed in three to four years.