By Jeff Morris
If 2020 taught us one thing about the Rideau-Goulbourn and Osgoode Wards in Ottawa, it’s that rural broadband internet has to improve.
The city’s Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee discussed rural broadband at their meeting via Zoom earlier this month. The committee members absorbed a presentation from the Rural Ontario Municipalities Association (ROMA) entitled ‘Broadband Connectivity: A Municipal Roadmap’.
ARAC voted to direct staff to provide an information report no later than the end of Q2 2021 to describe the current policy and financial environment on rural broadband, the role of senior governments, the role of the city, and areas that economic development with support from Right of Way can advocate for improved service in Ottawa.
“I don’t want to state the obvious, but this has been an issue for such a long time, and it’s taken on quite a bit of urgency right now,” said Gloucester-South Nepean Councillor Carol Anne Meehan. “I’m wondering if, in any of our communication (with the ROMA and the province), if there’s a way to highlight that this is no longer an option. It can’t wait. This is affecting children’s schooling. The burners have to be put on now. We can’t wait anymore. This has to be done, and done fast.”
The regulatory and funding roles for telecommunications fall primarily with the federal and provincial governments. Despite not having a mandated role in telecommunications, local governments have increasingly made strategic decisions to invest time and resources to improve connectivity in the last decade.
Local governments understand that communities that are connected and productive are more likely to have economic prosperity, recover faster, and compete in a global market. The recent announcements of public funding programs like the province’s investment of nearly $1 billion including doubling the investment in the Improving Connectivity in Ontario (ICON) program, and the $1.75 billion Universal Broadband Fund (UBF) from the Government of Canada validate this assertion.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the need for improved broadband service in rural Ottawa. There have been initiatives to support communities in Eastern Ontario, but communities like Manotick, Richmond, North Gower, Kars and Osgoode were not included as they are part of the City of Ottawa and not Eastern Ontario. With rural Ottawa residents working from home while their children are taking classes online, broadband service has become a significant issue.
Rideau-Goulbourn Councillor Scott Moffatt is among those who have had rural broadband issues. He said XPlornet is currently looking at the grant program to provide better service throughout rural Ottawa.
“I live out in more remote area, and I have been working with different providers,” Moffatt said. “I know Xplornet has upgraded to a better service now because they are expanding their service offering in the area. Storm as well. I have spoken with Bell and I intend to reach out and speak with Rogers and Telus too.
“Personally, whoever the service provider is, I’m not too concerned. What I care about is that we do what we can to get the best service possible for our constituents across this city.”
Moffatt echoed the comments made by ARAC Chair Eli El-Chantiri about the rural wards being at a disadvantage because they are not part of provincial initiatives aimed at improving services in Eastern Ontario.
“We often do get left out,” Moffatt said. “There’s the Eastern Ontario Resource Network that’s doing a one gig project. Ottawa’s left out of that. They’re kind of doing their thing together, and we’ve got to focus on our own because we’re part of that bigger city. There’s a bit of a gap sometimes, but we have to work with our private partners and ISP’s to hopefully capitalize on some of these investment opportunities.”
Osgoode Ward Councillor George Darouze called broadband a “very important subject” in the city’s rural areas.
“We all face it, every day, day in, and day out,” Darouze said. “We all have the same issues and the same challenges.”
Darouze said he wants to see Ottawa get a piece of the ROMA funding. He added that because the rural areas are considered part of the City of Ottawa, they are not eligible for many grants.
“Like councillor Moffatt mentioned, if Eastern Ontario had a specific program, we are excluded from it.”
Barrhaven Councillor Jan Harder weighed in by saying that Ottawa, as a technological leader in the country, should not face these problems.
“As every level of government comes out with more money to service rural broadband in Canada, we should have a piece of that,” Harder said. “We have an incredible set up that we can use in the heart of our city, in the geographic centre of Ottawa.
“Invest Ottawa has a lot of expertise and works extremely well with the staff that works with them. The more people we have looking for those opportunities and that funding, the sooner it will happen.”
Councillor Meehan added to her points that the city’s issues with broadband extend beyond the rural wards.
“It’s not just in the rural areas,” she said. “All throughout the city we are facing this. It’s prohibitive, I’m always asking the kids if they can stay off the computer (at certain times) so we can get into meetings. It’s an emergency, and we’ve got to do something now.”