By Sue Tiffin
Construction has started on six of approximately 265 new tower sites, with 20 new tower builds expected to occur this year across the eastern region of the province as part of the Eastern Ontario Regional Network’s cell gap project.
Jim Pine, Indigenous lead, and Heather Wrightly, communications and stakeholder relations officer with EORN, updated county council on June 22 on the massive project, valued at more than $300 million, which has been in the planning and fundraising stages since around 2014.
The public-private partnership project will include upgrading existing towers and the construction of 300 new cell towers throughout eastern Ontario and aims to ensure 99 per cent of the area has cellular calling service; that 95 per cent of the area has sufficient coverage to run video and applications; and that 85 per cent has the capability to stream high-definition video. Municipal governments throughout the region are contributing $10 million (the County of Haliburton has contributed $441,785), and while initially it was expected a private sector partner would contribute $61 million for a total project value of $213 million, it was announced last year that Rogers will contribute a minimum of $150 million, pushing its total value past $300 million.
The entire project is expected to be completed by 2025, with heightened connectivity achieved in some areas in the interim.
Pine began his update by noting the area is “Laurie Scott country,” and thanked her on behalf of EORN for “the incredible support,” of the cell project and other work undertaken over the past decade.
“It’s a big effort, the cell project itself is about improving cellular or mobile connectivity across eastern Ontario including here in the county,” he said. “We’ve partnered with Rogers Communications to be our technology partner for the project and it’s going to result in some 300 existing Rogers towers sites being upgraded to 5G capable equipment, so for better service, better speeds and better capacities. That existing footprint is in the process of being upgraded right now.”
Pine said it’s necessary to build around 265 or so new tower sites across eastern Ontario, including some in Haliburton County, “to close the gaps where we have coverage problems because we do have significant coverage problems across the region.”
“And that’s really the purpose of the project, is to make sure that there’s the ability to make that ubiquitous 911 call if you need to, no matter where you are in the region, wherever you travel on major roads or other roads, and also to improve the capacity in the systems, so that we can do more than just make a phone call,” he said. “So it’s about fixing, upgrading existing sites, and building new sites, is really the guts of it.”
According to the update, approximately 300 existing sites will be upgraded to support LTE phones as well as 5G, with approximately 265 new sites built over the next four years – 75 of those sites co-locations, in which third-party companies, such as Bell, put the Rogers gear on existing towers to reduce the amount of building that needs to be done.
Pine said around 180 of 300 or so existing tower sites have been upgraded, with that work on track to finish in 2023.
Service level agreements are in place for five years post-construction, Pine said, to ensure capacity is maintained.
“It’s important not to just build it and walk away, we want to build it and make sure it continues to provide the service that we’ve contracted for,” he said. “That’s really what EORN does, besides bringing the partners together to fund the project, it’s about making sure it does what we hope it would do when we build it.”
Pine said closing the coverage gaps will allow for better coverage, including for those who use cellular networks for business or online education, and will also allow for better municipal services, noting paramedics can use video link from rural areas to larger city centre hospitals without getting cut off.
“We know of course the towers that we’re going to be building and the existing towers being upgraded can also serve as the backbone infrastructures for fixed wireless high-speed broadband services so it’s critical to put the infrastructure in place in order to deliver service, and frankly you can’t fix the problem – we don’t know any technologies today that are out there that can fix a problem without putting up towers,” he said.
In addition to working with the provincial and federal government and technology partners, Pine said a formal duty to consult process with Indigenous communities and organizations across the region began in January, 2021.
Construction begins after the duty to consult process has been worked through, including archaeological assessments on tower sites.
“It’s really important for us to do this right, to take the time that’s necessary to work with the communities, and so that we have their comfort in this and it’s going to continue throughout the whole project,” said Pine. “It’s not a ‘one and done’ effort, we have to work with the communities right through to the end of the project and we’re certainly committed to doing that.”
Pine said it takes up to two-and-a-half years to begin construction on a site, after acquiring and assessing properties, duty to consult, and the land use authority process which includes public meetings.
Dysart et al Mayor Andrea Roberts asked about a project planned for Glamorgan Road.
“On the one hand, people want to make – need, not just want, anymore – to make a phone call, we know that,” she said. “But there is a lot of controversy over 5G, over cell towers, there are signs posted on that road, they don’t want them, it’s on our Dysart agenda next Tuesday – how do we as counsellors, how do we dissuade or address some of those concerns? We’re not Health Canada, I don’t know any information about safety, so how do we deal with that?”
Pine said he could offer info on 5G from Rogers, Health Canada and the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association.
“Health Canada says 5G conforms to Safety Code 6 which is their requirement for ensuring the health of the public around telecommunications matters, so 5G has been tested and it meets all of the criteria set out by the government for that,” he said. “So, yeah, there’s lots of controversy but I think the science side of it from what I understand is pretty clear that it’s safe, to use and to deploy. But we can get you the information that we have.”
Dysart et al Deputy Mayor Pat Kennedy said he sat in on a public meeting held the week before, regarding a Minnicock Lake project, and said he was dismayed with how it was run. The introduction of the hour-long meeting was 35 minutes long, he said, not giving much time for those in attendance to speak – with one person being cut-off mid-sentence when the allotted meeting time was over.
“That of course fostered even more – I mean, people were simmering and after that they were boiling.”
While people have concerns, he said, about property tax impacts or Health Canada standards and lighting, those concerns weren’t addressed in the Rogers-led meeting, as you would take those concerns to Health Canada or elsewhere.
“That would have been nice to have that maybe spelled out a little better to the people who have the concerns,” he said.
Highlands East Deputy Mayor Cec Ryall said he heard similar concerns from residents in Highlands East about the same meeting, that they felt it was “predominantly lip service,” and presented as fact rather than being consultation.
Pine said he would take those concerns back to Rogers.
“If people have questions we try to give them the answers we can, so if it takes extra time, it should take extra time, in my opinion,” he said.
Addressing questions of potential ongoing gaps and how the public might get involved, Pine said residents have been offering land to Rogers in order to host a tower on their property. Roberts said some private land owners in the Haliburton and Percy Lake area are currently going through the stages to see if their sites are suitable.
“I still find people that, they want it, and they’re reluctant to have it in their back yard,” she said.
Those interested in having a tower on their property can visit the EORN website at https://www.eorn.ca/.
with files from the Minden Times