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The Internet is increasingly part of essential infrastructure

As access to Internet and fair rates for consumers become increasingly important for residents and businesses alike, local and national groups are examining how best to provide these services to people in both urban and rural areas.

Municipalities across southern Ontario, including the Region of Waterloo, have been invited to become a part of the South West Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT) high-speed fibre network, which has been proposed by the Western Ontario Wardens’ Caucus.

The WOWC is a non-profit organization representing more than a dozen counties in western Ontario looking to increase prosperity in rural and small urban communities.

A lack of fibre optic infrastructure in rural communities can restrict their ability to compete in the global marketplace.

In that same vein, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) launched a survey last week aiming for answers from Canadians surrounding their current telecommunication services available in their region. In just five days, it’s received 15,000 responses.

The CRTC did a review of telecommunications services in April of 2015, where more than 25,000 comments were received from across the country. This survey is the second phase of their review of Canadian telecommunication services.

Canadians can complete the survey by Feb. 29 at the CRTC website, or through mail or fax.

The CRTC’s policy was established in 1999 and reviewed in 2011. They will have a public hearing on telecommunications issues on April 11 in Gatineau, Québec.

The SWIFT proposal was brought to regional council last month and looks to replace the region’s current provider, the Waterloo Region Education and Public Network, which provides network connections between 73 regional sites.

Internet access has been on Woolwich township’s radar for some time now, explains Woolwich CAO David Brenneman.

“I would say within the last two years the region and area municipalities were invited to the table to talk about this SWIFT initiative,” Brenneman said.

He said the region has been looking into SWIFT for a couple years now, and for Woolwich it’s the first real opportunity to look at something that seemed to be comprehensive and also something that would suit the needs of residents and businesses.

The report says “SWIFT is intended to give consumers more competitive choices and generate more funds for providers to upgrade and expand systems.”

It’s being proposed to bring affordable and accessible fibre optic infrastructure to communities across southwestern Ontario to increase their competitiveness. If created, each home, farm, and business would be able to have a 1-gigabyte Internet service for less than $100 a month within the next five years.

“I think right now the options unfortunately seem to be quite limited [for Internet providers]. Even those ones seem to be expensive at times for existing residents and businesses. There are some limited types of alternatives out there in the private marketplace, but sometimes they can be quite costly as well,” Brenneman said.

It would cost approximately $266 million to construct the infrastructure, which would include 350 points of presence or “PoPs.” They’re defined as “an artificial demarcation point or interface point between communicating entities.”

The annual operating cost would be $9.5 million and the Region of Waterloo’s share could be between $150,000 and $300,000 annually for five years. They anticipate one third of the contributions ($88.7 million from the $266 million) to come from federal, provincial, and municipal or private sources. Each participating municipality would be responsible for $17.7 million and $71 million would come from the private sector over a five-year period.

“Initially all that I know at this point is there’s a huge sizable capital investment in terms of how wide this network is going to go in Ontario,” Brenneman said.

During the initial construction phase they anticipate 406 communities to be connected through SWIFT.

“SWIFT is just something that we started talking about. This is just something that’s still being worked out in terms of final planning and even final implementation. Right now we’re in the discussion stages. Nothing is concrete at this time,” Brenneman said.

He says there are definitely benefits for those in rural areas, but there are also benefits for the urban folks, in terms of the reliability and the affordability. And there are definitely areas in the region where this type of infrastructure would be more than welcome – Woolwich included.

“In the past I’ve heard for example from people that live just outside Maryhill. There are others as well. I know when councillor Larry Shantz came on, one of his things was looking at Bell. Bell had been doing some work in the area with fibre optic, the question was whether they were actually expanding it for residential purposes. People have concerns in a lot of the rural outlying areas that they don’t have access to the reliable service,” Brenneman said.

So far the Region of Niagara, the town of Caledon, and the city of Orillia have joined SWIFT. Regional staff will be reporting back to council with a recommendation about participating in the fibre optic network and what that could mean for the budget this year.

“If you can have a strong integrated network with one-gigabyte service connected to this backbone as the report outlines, right now we think it’s worth this discussion. We’re not aware of any other type of comprehensive discussion going on at this scale that really to date has made sense for us to be a party to these discussions,” Brenneman said.

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