Fibre optic internet access is slowly expanding in rural southwestern Ontario, but there’s consensus that the need is more urgent as agriculture technology advances and COVID-19 pushes more people to work and learn from home.
In July 2016 the Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT) project was launched with the five-year mission of providing high-speed Internet access to small communities and rural areas. The federal and provincial governments each chipped in $90 million toward the $281-million project.
But fours years later, SWIFT is only about half-way through its list of 20 member municipalities, contracting out installation work to telecom companies to install fibre optic lines in underserviced areas. Contracts for Oxford County were recently announced and Grey, Bruce and Essex and Simcoe counties are next up on the list. Wellington County became the first area to complete installation and the first customers started receiving service in August.
SWIFT executive director Barry Field said the focus of the project has also shifted substantially. Originally the goal was to concentrate on constructing main lines of fibre optics in rural areas, but he said private telecoms had covered that area of the market.
“What we found out was that it already exists,” he said. “Where the funding is actually required is getting access out to the customers . . . as you move out to the less-densely populated areas the cost per subscriber goes way up,” said Field, who took over the top job at SWIFT about a year ago.
With the shift to connecting individual customers, the cost of the project was also reduced. The federal and provincial government funding shrank to $63.7 million with private telecoms contributing the same amount and another $17.6 million from municipalities for a total of $209 million.
SWIFT’s original five-year target will expire next summer, but Field said the remaining work will proceed quickly, He said all the work will be contracted out early next year and all the construction will be completed no later than the middle of 2023.
When it’s completed the project will provide broadband access to 50,000 homes, farms and businesses. But Field acknowledged that it is only a small part of the potential market, He estimated it would cost about $2.7 billion to run fibre networks on every road in the southwestern Ontario.
Field said SWIFT does not want to act as a price regulator, but will require the telecoms to charge no more than $115 a month for a download speed of 50 MBps and upload of 10 MBps, the minimum standard for broadband internet service.
“We do not want to scare ISPs (Internet service providers) away by saying you have to have a very low price point. They need to make money or they will not participate and we will be no better off,” Field said, noting that some companies will voluntarily offer lower prices.
Field said the need for good Internet access on farms is more critical as the newest agricultural vehicles and equipment are often linked to the Internet.
“All of this technology advancement is lost on us if we don’t have connectivity in the areas that need it. Nobody is questioning anymore why Internet is needed in rural areas,” said Field.
Certainly not Jeff Drudge. The Huron County farmer would love to see a fibre network installed on Hwy 86 running past the family farm. He runs a diversified operation that includes cash crops, grain elevators, liquid fertilizer and seed sales and maple syrup.
“Every aspect of our business could benefit from a good Internet connection,” said Drudge.
But for now he is dependent on unreliable DSL service. He is now considering having equipment installed on the top of his silos to enable enhanced wireless service.
“It seems like everything is moving to cloud-based operating systems. But to get equipment like that we would have to have a good Internet connection,” said Drudge.
Helen Hambly, a professor at the University of Guelph, has been studying rural broadband access for years as head of the Regional and Rural Broadband (R2B2) project.
She said the pandemic has made a bad situation worse. She said the rural Internet networks are strained because more people working are from home and their children are getting their education online.
Hambly said she often hears of urban dwellers who move out to a rural areas to start up a home-based business, only to discover that a poor Internet connection makes it impossible.
She said the speed of data in rural Ontario can be five to nine times slower than in urban areas because of the people working from home or students taking courses online and telecoms are overwhelmed because they have a hard time getting labour for maintenance.
Hambly said farmers are so dependent on internet connection they often pay for multiple subscriptions to DSL and wireless connections and incur large overage charges. She said farmers have to unite to demand fibre optic access in rural areas.
“Agriculture really needs to take stronger advocacy on rural broadband because everything from micro to mega-farms is at stake,” Hambly said.