Whether it’s out on the farm, at the store or at home, access to a fast and reliable Internet connection has become an all but essential commodity for modern economies. Yet even as the larger cities in the province enjoy superior speeds and greater market competition, rural and remote communities are often left out of the loop.
The South Western Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT) is working to change that. The not-for-profit collective is funding the creation of a large, high-speed internet network in the south west of the province that aims to provide rural communities with the same speeds and same choices as their city counterparts.
Construction for the multi-million dollar project is expected to begin in mid-2018, and SWIFT is asking rural Canadians to help decide where they need to prioritize building first.
“We should have shovels in the ground this year, which is very exciting,” said Tammy McQueen, SWIFT’s communications manager.
The goal is to connect all the participating communities in southwestern Ontario – about 3.5-million people, or 350 communities – with a fibre optic network. The group is investing in fibre optics specifically because, unlike wiring, the technology is considered “future-proof.” Once the fibre is laid in the ground, internet speeds can be increased indefinitely into the future as demand grows, using the same fibre optic network.
Crucially, the network would be “open access,” meaning any telecommunications company would be able to provide Internet services on the same network.
Fibre optics in Ontario are often run to the Internet Exchange Point at 151 Front St. in Toronto, meaning those living in close proximity to city often have far more service providers to choose from. It’s only when you move to more remote communities that the number of service providers with networks in the area become increasingly sparse, leading to inflated prices and monopolistic practices. Providers are often unwilling to invest large amounts into building their own networks to service remote communities with small populations, leaving them with few options.
“If you are in an office tower, two blocks from 151 Front St., you have a choice of about 50 different service providers to get services from,” explained SWIFT CEO Geoff Hogan.
“Whereas if you are somewhere in Wellesley Township, and you want to get a contract for those services, there’s probably only two companies that can give you access. So once SWIFT is in place and we have this super fast highway all the way to 151 Front St., you’re actually getting the ability to have 50 people compete for your business.”
Construction for the network’s backbone is starting in mid- to late-2018, and is expected to be completed by 2021.
As the backbone goes online, the next step would be to connect individual communities, homes and business to the it. It’s at that point that people will start to experience faster service.
The venture has attracted $180 million in combined funding from the federal and provincial government, another $90 million from the private sector, and approximately $18 million from municipalities, including a $2.2 million investment from Waterloo Region.
“The region has contributed $2.2 million over four years, and the agreement we have with the region is that we will build $8.8 million worth of infrastructure in the region. So they’re making an investment of one-quarter of the infrastructure that we built in the region,” explained Hogan.
“And that’s the guaranteed amount. It’s likely going to be more than that because we do have about a 14-times multiplier over the project in general. Like the municipalities have put in between $17 and $20 million, and we’re spending almost $300 million. So basically the municipalities are leveraging their dollars regionally 14 to 16 times.”
SWIFT will be accepting bids from a group of 28 pre-approved telecommunications companies, including Bell Canada and Rogers, to build different sections of the network. The companies will own the networks themselves, but are bound to follow SWIFT’s rules, including allowing other companies to provide services on their networks. They will also be incentivized to provide services to small communities where the profitability may be
“So really SWIFT is all about building an affordable, open-access network that will make it easier, faster and more affordable for service providers to deliver those services to consumers,” said McQueen.
Right now, SWIFT is asking Ontarians – particularly those in rural areas – for information on their current Internet service via an online survey. The information will help the group decide which communities to start connecting first.
Those interested in taking part in the survey can find it on the SWIFT website. The survey is also being promoted on the Wellesley Township website.
“It’s important,” said Wellesley Mayor Joe Nowak about filling out the survey. “It’s important to let the SWIFT people recognize the need out in Wellesley Township.”
“It’s going to help the economy, it’s going to help the farming community for sure,” he added of the fibre optic network. “I do know we have a lot of the on-farm shops … and it always amazes me as to how they’ve been able to attract the business that they’ve attracted. And I think having the Internet at their disposal will go a long way in making their businesses even stronger.”