Ottawa unveils $105-million broadband project

Rainy River District soon could be surfing the “information highway” at a more rapid speed as part of a $105-million broadband access project launched by the federal government last week.
Industry minister Allan Rock and Andy Mitchell, secretary of state for FedNor and Rural Development, announced Thursday that Ottawa would be starting a pilot project to bring broadband (or high-speed Internet access) to rural and northern communities.
“Broadband is becoming increasingly important for economic development as well as enabling Canadian companies to build and deliver innovations in areas like health-care, education and e-commerce,” Rock said in a press release.
“However, market forces alone will not take broadband to all rural and remote parts of the country,” he noted. “This program is designed to equip more rural and remote communities with this leading edge infrastructure.”
Selections for the $105-million project will be made in a two-step process, program director Peter Hill explained yesterday.
First, communities must work together to figure out what kind of need there is locally and what resources are available. Then they can apply to the federal government for support in developing a business plan.
Successful applicants—who apply before Oct. 31—can receive up to $30,000 to commission a business plan, which then would be presented to an Internet Service Provider (ISP).
“If there’s a recognized aggregate demand, then it may end up being more attractive to the private sector,” Hill noted, adding a business plan would demonstrate this demand.
“We recognize that even with the aggregate demand, there is still the capability of a shortfall . . . and that carriers still wouldn’t see it as a business case to go to,” he admitted.
That’s why a national selection committee would be chosen to review business plans and provide the one-time funds necessary to help carriers provide the infrastructure needed to offer broadband services here.
Fort Frances Mayor Glenn Witherspoon was ecstatic when he heard of the project.
“It is great news,” he said Monday. “A lot of other groups have been working to try and attract broadband here. This might be the missing piece we need.
“We will do everything possible to jump through those hoops,” he pledged. “We will work along with Bob Nault’s office at the municipal level to get us in the position to be competitive with the rest of Canada.”
Local MP Robert Nault, also the minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, also was pleased by last week’s announcement and what it could mean to this region.
“I think it’s the beginning of a larger national initiative of connecting Canada, both rural and urban,” he said yesterday while in Fort Frances for a Seniors’ Information Forum.
“Rural has its unique needs and I think the pilot is an opportunity for us to develop the kinds of strategies and policies necessary to make it work in rural Canada.
“I don’t think in today’s world anyone can compete without the information highway and telecommunications structures,” he stressed. “That’s part of our language of infrastructure.”
The project is in response to a National Broadband Task Force, which studied the availability of Internet services across the country.
The task force found both the federal government and the private sector have a stake in providing these services. It also estimated the federal contribution to providing high-speed Internet could be upwards of $1 billion.
With the government currently contributing 1/10th of this sum, Nault said Ottawa is trying to balance the need for the program with the current financial situation.
He added the program had a long way to go, and that Ottawa was looking to pay as it went in effort to also maintain a balanced budget.
“I see this as a good down payment on a policy program that has considerable way to go yet,” Nault said.
NDP leader and local MPP Howard Hampton also was glad to hear the news.
“Communities across Northern Ontario need high-speed telecommunications to build their commerce . . . it has the potential for new economic opportunities and new jobs,” he said yesterday.
Hampton added it wasn’t just up to Ottawa to ensure these services were available in Northern Ontario.
“There is lots of room for the province to get involved,” he said. “[In] the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund, the government has five years of funding, or almost $300 million, they are storing in a bank account.”

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