County commits to mobile broadband expansion project
By Chad Ingram
Published May 23, 2018
Haliburton County will spend up to $565,000 on a mobile broadband expansion project through the Eastern Ontario Regional Network, and contribute another $40,000 for a broadband internet gap analysis for the region.
County councillors heard from Mike Rutter, who is the county's chief administrative officer, but also a co-lead for EORN, during a May 23 meeting.
The mobile broadband internet expansion project being undertaken by EORN, which is owned by the Eastern Ontario Warden's Caucus, is the second such project to be performed in the region. The first, which saw the installation of fibre-optic cable throughout the area, began in 2010 and was completed in 2015.
While the goal of that $175-million project had been to connect 95 per cent of homes and businesses in eastern Ontario to high-speed, broadband internet, it fell short of that mark.
While according to EORN approximately 86 per cent of homes and businesses in the region were connected, in Haliburton County that figure is much lower. Approximately 11,300 of the county's 21,750 residences were connected, leaving 45 per cent of them without fibre access. This was in part attributed to the county's topography.
The service provided through that project was up to 10 Mbps (megabits per second) for downloading, and 1 Mbps for uploading, a standard that is not what it once was.
“When this project was envisioned and this project was built, Netflix didn't operate in Canada,” Rutter said. “So, when you think about how much bandwidth is consumed just by Netflix alone, clearly we need to be enhancing that level of service.”
In 2016, the CRTC ruled internet with download speeds of at least 50 Mbps and upload speeds of at least 10 Mbps to be a basic telecom service. While satellite internet is available throughout some of the county, reception can be spotty.
Haliburton County's contribution to the initial EORN project was $500,000.
“The really great news, I think . . . is that resulted in investment throughout the County of Haliburton, and this is just looking at the County of Haliburton, of $11 million,” Rutter said, explaining these investments represented the money put up by telecom companies and the provincial and federal levels of government.
Rutter said that was the largest return for any of the 13 members municipalities in the EOWC.
“This is the best return on investment for any county in the Eastern Ontario Wardens' Caucus,” he said. “We received $22 of investment for every one dollar county council invested. From an investment standpoint, that is impressive.”
However, Rutter acknowledged the initial project left a substantial coverage gap.
“We know there is still certainly work to be done, and the numbers verify that,” he said.
The mobile broadband expansion project, which like the initial project is a public-private partnership, has as estimated price tag of $213 million, and will entail the construction of several new telecommunications towers throughout eastern Ontario.
Of that total cost, $10 million is budgeted to come from the EOWC, along with the separated city governments within its area; $71 million from the federal government; $71 million from the provincial government; and $61 million from the mobile provider companies themselves.
In its 2018 budget, Kathleen Wynne's Liberal government included the $71 million at the provincial level.
“We know there's an election going on, and we know that that investment really isn't guaranteed, unless the Liberals are elected,” Rutter told council. “So we've been working with the other parties to make sure that they will also commit to that, and while we don't have an answer at this point, we're really, really confident . . . we received a really positive response from the other parties.”
The federal government, as of yet, has not made an announcement regarding the funding request.
Some 18 per cent of the area included in the EOWC has no coverage at all, and another 16 per cent has inadequate coverage according to EORN.
For example, Rutter told councillors, when he's at his parents' house in Wilberforce, he's unable to achieve enough capacity to run applications on his smartphone. All the while, demand for broadband capacity is growing, meaning something has to be done soon.
“We need better coverage to survive in this world,” Rutter said.
The county's share in the project cost is based on a weighted formula that includes the size of the area, population and assessment. The county's portion will be between $437,000 and $566,000, depending on how many of the separated cities in eastern Ontario participate. As Rutter told councillors, two of the largest – Belleville and Kingston – have already agreed to fund their share.
While the county has an option to pay off its share over a four-year period, between a broadband reserve of more than $310,00 and money from the county's general working reserve, Rutter said the municipality could easily cover its portion upfront.
As for timelines, ideally the EOWC is hoping to receive approval of federal funding this summer, negotiate agreements this fall, issue requests for proposals next year, and begin construction in the spring of 2020.
Council agreed to funding Haliburton County's portion of the project, as well as an additional $40,000 for its part in a detailed, up-to-date analysis of internet coverage gaps throughout the area.
“It's a job half done, and congratulations to all that sit around this table and the staff and EORN and whatever to get us where we are,” said Minden Hills Mayor Brent Devolin. “The technology is rapidly accelerating things, so I think to get some metrics on where we are, certainly that can't happen fast enough.”
“I can't say yes fast enough,” said Algonquin Highlands Mayor Carol Moffatt. “In round one, Algonquin Highlands was the most under-served, not only in Haliburton County, but in the entire eastern region. We knew then and know now that that was due to geography and density.”
Moffatt said that towers, while they will be controversial, are the solution that is required.