Hang up on dial-up

The days of twiddling your thumbs waiting for a Web page to load are almost over for some district residents.
A process which began this spring to bring broadband infrastructure to the district is in its final stages after the federal government announced Friday that $890,000 in funding will be granted to Pwi-di-goo-zing Ne-yaa-zhing Advisory Services to service seven First Nations in the area as well as other district communities.
“We were really happy,” Jim Leonard, executive director of Advisory Services, said of their reaction to the acceptance letter. “We put in for funding for the seven First Nations [in the area], but will provide service for all the communities from Seine River to Emo.”
The Broadband for Rural and Northern Development (BRAND) pilot project is designed to bring broadband infrastructure to First Nations, rural, and northern communities that are not served at present.
The project is a 50 percent split between the federal government and local stakeholders. “It’s a $1.7-million total project cost, give or take,” said Leonard.
The other 50 percent of the cost will be picked up by Bell Canada (30 percent), which submitted the lowest and winning bid during the RFP stage of business plan development, and the seven area First Nations involved in the proposal (20 percent).
In total, 83 applications were submitted for the first round of funding but only 33 were selected across the country, including four in Ontario. The pilot project has a $105-million budget, of which more than $44 million was doled out to this round of successful applicants, including $4 million to Ontario communities.
“This will benefit aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities alike,” said Kenora-Rainy River MP Robert Nault in a release. “It gives residents in Northwestern Ontario another opportunity to benefit from the modern economy.
“Broadband brings more business opportunities to communities, regardless of where they are located,” Nault noted. “Applications in other areas, such as health and education, will also improve the quality of life.”
The communities included in the proposal are Couchiching, Lac La Croix, Naicatchewenin, Nicickousemenecaning, Rainy River, Seine River, Stanjikoming, Town of Fort Frances, Town of Rainy River, Township of Alberton, Township of La Vallee, Township of Emo, Township of Chapple, and the Township of Morley.
Leonard explained the project now must undergo negotiations in the coming months to fine-tune various aspects—from financial commitments to technology.
Christine Cosgrove, the acting manager for the broadband program in Ontario, said the financial breakdown is one of the key issues all the negotiations must address.
She indicated that since the business plans were developed several months ago, things can change, partners can have second thoughts, and new stakeholders may step up.
“We finalize some of the things that are proposed,” Cosgrove said. “One of the things we look at is, ‘Is the vendor willing to live up to their commitment,’ and ‘Can they deliver what they’ve indicated when they’ve indicated.’”
One issue that’s been of some concern to some people in the district during the whole application process is whether the service provider—in this case Bell Canada—is using technology that will deliver true high-speed Internet service.
“Even if the best-case scenario happens,” said Jerry Korman, a former technical consultant for Advisory Services during the RFP stage, “you can only get it 6,000 feet from the little black box.”
Korman was referring to the remote switch Bell Canada indicated it would install to service the communities in the proposal.
From a technical standpoint, he believes the range of service will be much less and the costs, he says (citing industry standards), is much more than those being touted through the proposal.
“They start at at least $500,000 U.S.,” Korman noted. “Even 10 boxes would [just] cover the urban areas. That doesn’t cover the rural areas.”
“The community championed themselves,” said Beth Clarke, manager of program operations for the BRAND competition, adding it was through the RFP selection process that the service provider was determined.
Korman didn’t recommend the Bell Canada proposal during the selection process.
“We had a technical evaluation committee look at the technical components to be sure that they made sense,” Clarke said of all 83 applications that were submitted for funding.
“And their plan did,” she said of the Advisory Services application. “It’s time now to walk the talk.”
Timing is another issue.
Although there’s no official word as to when installation of the infrastructure will begin, Advisory Services did indicate that sometime in the new year is not out of the question, though the length of the negotiations could affect the start date.
“We’re not sure how long the negotiations will take place,” admitted Cosgrove. “We want to make sure everything is above board . . . before we enter into an agreement.”
“Hopefully it won’t take too long,” Leonard said optimistically.
Though Bell Canada could not be reached for comment prior to press time today, Advisory Services indicated the timelines that initially were indicated would probably change—and was asked by Bell Canada not to release them.
To Korman, this is another red flag. He remembers hearing this tune before.
“It’s almost a carbon copy of the release they had three years ago,” he said of a proposal by Bell to service the area with broadband then as a private company on their own.
The service never materialized.
“They did submit a timeline in their business plan,” said Cosgrove. “We’ll have to go over it to see if they make any changes. That will be one of the things we’ll have to go over.
“We want to be sure whatever is being proposed, those areas are being serviced,” she stressed.
In addition to the Round One Phase II funding that Advisory Services already has been awarded, it is now working on developing a business plan with stakeholders from the west end of the district to help service communities west of Emo.
According to Cosgrove, these areas were part of the initial application but didn’t have enough detail to allow the selection committee to have enough comfort awarding money for that component.
“They liked our proposal,” Leonard said of the First Nations component of the proposal. “We’re looking to co-ordinate with municipalities and communities [in the west end.]”
The business plan is being prepared in conjunction with the Rainy River Futures Development Corp. and must be submitted by Nov. 20.