by Mayor Nancy Peckford
Earlier this month, the Ford government announced an unprecedented $11 billion joint funding agreement to support Ontario’s COVID recovery, fragile as it may be. In his announcement, Premier Ford recognized the province’s strong and collaborative relationship with their federal governments. Given the chaos in the US, Canadians should be so lucky.
Of the 11 billion, $4 billion is intended to support 444 municipalities across Ontario, of which 50 percent is designated for public transit systems. Clearly, the arrival of COVID has dramatically changed daily commuting patterns. The radically quick pivot to work from home, learn from home arrangements continues to transform Ontarians’ habits and imperatives.
It’s no surprise, then, that urban transit systems are hemorrhaging dollars, riders and need the help.
But there is another urgent need for a successful economic recovery. High speed broadband has been the invisible enabler when it comes to Canadians’ efforts to contain COVID transmission. Overnight, millions of families, professionals and business owners in our country became solely dependent on their Internet Service Provider to work, learn, visit the doctor, and obtain the goods and services they needed.
Local businesses immediately transitioned to web sales and curbside pick-up only. Classes were streamed, doctors shifted to virtual consultations, and entertainment went exclusively on line. Given a recent uptick in COVID cases, we may be there again in the not too distant future.
However, many living outside of large urban centres, including here in North Grenville, were met with the daily frustrations of a poor and unreliable internet connection. Before moving out of the city, I mistakenly assumed this was only happening in highly remote locations. Not true.
Go a few kilometres beyond urban boundaries in this province and the reality is that good broadband is a matter of good luck. In fact, the recently established CRTC basic minimum standard for internet service (50 Mbps for downloads and 10 Mbps for uploads) is out of reach for over 40 percent of those living and working outside of major urban centres in eastern Ontario.
This translates into nearly a half a million people, many of whom have woefully bad service despite their relative proximity to a commercial or residential hub, including right here in Leeds and Grenville.
And with diminished access to reliable internet becomes diminished opportunity. Businesses can’t rely on an online customer base, education can’t be effectively delivered remotely, professionals who are staying out of the office won’t get the work done on time, and primary health care is reduced to a telephone call.
Many parents and professionals, including myself, are wringing their hands about back to school and work arrangements for the fall. As a mother of 3 school age kids, I fully understand the limitations of virtual learning. My kids yearn for human contact and a screen is, at best, a one dimensional experience they tolerate, not embrace as a substitute for school. Plus, unfortunately, we can’t always count on the internet to deliver.
But as Mayor of North Grenville, recognized as a high growth community immediately south of Ottawa, I am deeply aware that public health must come first. Should keeping kids out of the classroom (or offering a hybrid program), among other measures, become the only way to ensure we get through a second wave without another massive economic disruption, I can accept that.
What I can’t accept is poor rural internet service that risks leaving many of my residents, businesses and much of eastern Ontario behind. Without an ambitious federal-provincial strategy that prioritizes the establishment of truly high speed, reliable rural broadband networks (i.e. a gigabit), access to education, health care, jobs, and Ontario’s long term economic recovery is in jeopardy.
That’s why EORN, the Eastern Ontario Regional Network (EORN) – representing 13 Counties and over 100 municipalities – is seeking federal and provincial support to deliver ultra-fast, Gig internet to homes and businesses in the region through a $1.6 billion public-private partnership.
Nearly 103,000 small and medium-sized businesses operate in rural eastern Ontario. Almost sixty percent of those responding to a survey by the Eastern Ontario Leadership Council said broadband is the number one priority for their business.
Clearly, the urgency of the matter is akin to urban transit, and the dollars to fix it are comparable. However, its impact will have an equalizing effect across the province, ensuring that no matter where you live, rural, urban or somewhere in between, COVID will not exact more of a price than it already has.
North Grenville residents and businesses are invited to complete the Municipality’s recently launched internet connectivity survey at https://performance.cira.ca/northgrenville.
An earlier version of this article was published in the Ottawa Citizen and Brockville Recorder