By Chad Ingram
It’s not every day, week, month, year or really ever that the premier of Ontario comes to Minden, so it was a pretty big deal when Premier Doug Ford arrived in town earlier this month for a surprise announcement regarding rural broadband funding ahead of the release of the provincial budget.
A few members of his cabinet, including the province’s finance minister, joined Ford and there was a buzz of excitement at the Minden Hills Cultural Centre ahead of the announcement on Nov. 4. It seemed like something big was about to happen and, indeed, it was.
The announcement was for $680 million of funding over the next few years for the expansion of broadband internet services in the province, particularly for rural and underserved areas. Ford and Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock MPP and Ontario Infrastructure Minister Laurie Scott noted that combined with previous funding the Ford government had tabled for the cause, it totalled nearly $1 billion. At the announcement, Scott said she hoped the federal government would unlock its Universal Broadband Fund and, indeed, the next week it did, making hundreds of millions of dollars more available for broadband expansion projects.
So, there is going to be a ton of money available for internet projects, which seems like and is great news, but as we’ve seen again and again in Haliburton County, the challenge lies in those projects actually resulting in widespread, tangible benefit.
Previous large-scale projects have fallen far short of their connectivity goals, leaving swaths of the county with poor or finicky connection to the internet.
Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically underscored the problems with internet in the county and the dire need for improved connectivity. Amid the pandemic, municipal councils have been holding meetings via online conferencing app Zoom, those meetings live-streamed to the public on YouTube. Meetings of local councils are almost invariably derailed at some point by some kind of connectivity issue. Councillors or staff members may freeze up on screen, or sometimes simply vanish. It’s not unusual to hear something to the effect of, “We’ve lost the deputy mayor. We’ll take a break while we try to get her back.”
Stable, reliable, broadband internet is essential for business, essential for education in a post-pandemic landscape, and essential for continuing to attract people to the area. In that way, the ability to stream Netflix is basically essential.
There are a couple of proverbial irons in the fire currently; the cell gap project being conducted by the Eastern Ontario Regional Network, and a county-led project through the province’s ICON (Improving Connectivity in Ontario) program. Certainly throwing whatever you can at the wall and hoping it sticks has sort of become the philosophy when it comes to improving connectivity in the county.
While these projects are typically complex private-partnerships between all levels of government and telecom companies, meaning they take years to complete, hopefully the announcement earlier this month will finally mean real, reliable, community-wide connectivity in Haliburton County.