A $36-million partnership between the federal government and Xplornet Communications Inc. is expected to improve wireless Internet speeds in Greater Napanee, Stone Mills, Deseronto, and neighbouring areas.
Navdeep Bains, Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development was on hand last Wednesday at the Signal Brewing Company in Thurlow to announce a $10.8 million federal investment from the $500 million Connect to Innovate program, which aims to improve connectivity in rural and remote regions.
Bains said he remembers the advent of the Internet and dial-up communications, where the slightest disturbance could ruin a connection. He said he couldn’t believe 20 years later important the technology would become.
“This is something our government truly recognizes, the Internet in this day and age is no longer a luxury, it’s absolutely essential,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you live, you will have an opportunity to succeed.”
Bains said whether someone wants to go back to school, visit a medical specialist in a far-away setting, sell their goods to a larger market, or connect with friends and family, it all can be done online.
With that realization, the government put out a call to the private sector for proposals that would bring technology to rural communities.
Xplornet Communications stepped forward with a $25.2-million investment of its own in a 480-km fibre optics network that will connect to 38 institutions in 21 communities through a hub-and-spoke model.
Essentially, the model connects existing towers at hub locations like schools and libraries and uses state-of-the-art small cell technology to improve the transmission of information in order to serve 35,000 homes and businesses.
Xplornet chief executive officer Allison Lenehan said customers will surely benefit.
“More than ever what matters to our customers is even faster speeds and higher data plans at more affordable prices to do more of what they love online,” he said. “We will continue to innovate to improve our broadband services and deliver a 5G-ready network of the future right here.”
Lenehan said that “overdue investment” will bring speeds up past 100 mbps, which is common in urban areas.
Hastings-Lennox and Addington called the investment “transformational.” He added he’s pleased to see his riding acting as a pilot project for other rural Canadian communities that might be having challenges improving access.
Bossio said when the Connect to Innovate program was released, he approached 15 different Internet service providers to make investments. There were two proposals in the southern part of the riding and none in the north. In the north, providers indicated that even if the government paid 100 per cent of the bill, they wouldn’t have the density needed to support the operational costs of the service.
One thing that stood out with the Xplornet proposal, he said, was the company’s willingness to invest.
“What I like is they were willing to kick in the lion’s share. It opens up opportunities for the riding,” he said, adding a half-billion across Canada seems like a lot of money, but it represents “a drop in the bucket” compared to need.
While Bossio acknowledged he fielded some public questions about Xplornet receiving the contract, he said it gained the project because of its willingness to move forward. He also added that some of the present obstacles impacting service providers in the region will be addressed by the new technology.
In 2012, when Eastern Ontario Rural Network (EORN) leveraged $170 million in private investment and federal and provincial funds to build a high-speed communications backbone, the needs weren’t the same today. Few people had multiple devices online and streaming music and video was quite limited. To illustrate his point, Bossio notes that the entirety of data consumed on the Internet in the past two years alone equals the sum of all of the years previously.
“What happens is the antennas become oversubscribed quickly,” he said.
The microwave towers used in rural areas were effectively backlogged and they couldn’t be placed in high density because they had potential to interfere with signals from other towers. Now, those towers will be better connected with fibre and the microcell technology, eliminating barriers.
Bossio said that won’t eliminate all challenges as hilly terrain, forests, and the lack of population density do have an impact, but it will allow for improvements.
Asked about the cost for such technology, particularly as one provider goes it alone to improve systems for its customers, Bossio acknowledged it’s a costly venture. He said the government assistance should help with cost and that it is in Xplornet’s interest to be affordable.
“The difficulty is it is expensive to provide service to rural areas, so that’s why we’re kicking in money. If there was a natural market here, we’d have a number of companies wanting to do this. The government funding ensures it’s not cost prohibitive,” he said. “They want to keep costs down so they’re able to sign up vastly more customers in the region.”
That doesn’t mean low costs like downtown Toronto where economies of scale are at play, but the hope is to keep pricing similar to what customers pay for lesser service now.
According to Bossio, the roll-out of the network will probably be staged. Xplornet will be able to work on rights of way over the winter and break ground in the spring. By 2020, the additional capacity must be built.
“It’s a relatively short period of time for what is being accomplished,” he said.
With respect to regional economic development, Bossio said the project will be a game changer because it invites investment from those looking to access a high quality of life and less expensive living than in larger urban areas.
“Rural communities have ideas, drive and entrepreneurial desire. We just have to unleash it. This is the type of technology and investment that could do just that,” he said. “We’re in a sweet spot, I think, for the next generation. I see a lot of changes happening here in the next decade as to the types of investments happening here.”
The local MP also said he believes the Connect to Innovate investment dovetails nicely with the work of the EORN, which recently sought multi-level government buy-in for a $213-million project to improve cellular communications across the region. Bossio said each of his federal colleagues from eastern Ontario has signed a letter of support for that project and he continues to work alongside EORN leads Jim Pine and David Fell to bring that project to the fore.
Meanwhile, he’s hoping the risk taken by the government and by Xplornet will encourage more innovation elsewhere in the region and across Canada, provided the model is a success.
“It’s a big investment. Hopefully, it’s the beginning of many more investments in the future that will mushroom.”