Volunteers worth millions

Through history, different preoccupations have shaped human life.
It was agriculture for a thousand years, industrial development for several hundred. The information age dominated for about 70, and now we are entering the bio-economy.
Each kind of activity remains with us. But the dominant forces change. What will be next, I don’t know yet.
Information technology is mature now as an economic driver. But in Northwestern Ontario, we have not always been able to take part fully. Fortunately, that’s changing rapidly–thanks to several regional volunteer committees.
Vic Prokopchuk, a Quetico Centre board member, has a work history and strong personal interest in telecommunications. I interviewed him about what the Northwestern Ontario Regional Telecommunications Committee and the “807 Northwest Network” are doing.
A lot, it turns out!
Earlier, they made sure that telecommunications infrastructure is built in the north. That means lines for data, voice, and video communications. These are now in place, except for small communities north of the 51st parallel.
Here is a dramatic example of success to date: only a year ago, it would have cost a business $2,200 for a dedicated line from Fort Frances to Thunder Bay to send computer data in business hours.
Now it costs $500 for 24-hour service seven days a week.
The hardware is in place. Now the committees are working toward affordable access. That means setting up exchanges in all the small communities, like Upsala or Nakina.
It’s costly. Developing the switching and hubs, and the remaining needed infrastructure, may cost $20-$30 million. The “807 Northwest Network” committee will submit business plans to the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp. for $5 million.
FedNor also is a funding partner.
And it is happening! The committees are dedicated, and putting in a lot of volunteer time. They also are working closely with telecommunications suppliers, local Northwestern Ontario telephone companies, and Bell Canada.
Prokopchuk says excellent information technology is far more important here than in urban areas. In Toronto, people can hop into a taxi or go across the street to consult with experts in any field.
In Northwestern Ontario, we need to bridge the distances digitally!
An example of the value is “tele-health.” You can live in Pickle Lake and go to a one-room clinic with a high-resolution video camera. Stand in front of it, open wide, and say “Ahhh” to your doctor in Thunder Bay, Moncton, or Vancouver.
Yep, you have the latest strain of strep infection!
This, and more, can happen within two years. “Tele-radiology” is already in place. Many more health, education, business, and social service applications may raise our total quality of life beyond what some big cities offer.
This is exciting stuff! This column is too short for all the details but if you want to know more, talk to the committee members. They are from a consortium of hospitals, the college, university, boards of education, social agencies, and government ministries that deliver services.
The chair of “807 Northwest Network” is Les Mayes of Confederation College. Outside Thunder Bay, the executive committee includes Hal Fjeldsted (Red Lake), Prokopchuk and Ted Couch (Atikokan), and Neil McOdrum (Geraldton).
Prokopchuk also chairs the Regional Telecommunications Committee, which has been at work since 1991. Some of its other members are Ed Hoshizaki (Sioux Lookout) and Geoff Gillon (Fort Frances).
There are more.
The large technical committee of “807 Northwest Network” ensures input from the whole region. Hats off to the volunteers bringing us fully into the information age, thereby also enabling the bio-economy.

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