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Thursday, July 9, 2020
Connecting Our Communities

Boosting broadband access

Wellington County is one of three Ontario communities selected for first round of SWIFT fibre optic project

A non-profit group looking to enhance open-access, high-speed internet services to underserviced municipalities has chosen three counties for its latest round of fibre optic infrastructure.

Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT)  selected Wellington, Lambton and Norfolk counties for the initial phase of a project aiming to connect rural and Indigenous communities across southwestern Ontario with high-speed internet service.

More than $200 million in public and private funding has been approved for the massive initiative for the construction of fibre networks in the province, but the funding is being released in phases.

Up to $32 million is on offer to private internet service providers (ISPs) for the first phase of the project, with $12.1 million being earmarked for Wellington, $11.2 million for Lambton and $8.3 million for Norfolk.

“Essentially what we’ve done is we’ve announced who are going to be three to go,” explained Melissa O’Brien. “As we know, there are 15 counties within our region, and someone has to go first and someone has to go last.”

To choose the first three municipalities for the pilot phase of the project, SWIFT looked at communities in the region with severe shortages of high-speed internet. Typically, the cities and population centres in the province tend have the best internet connectivity, while more remote locations are left using older and slower infrastructure; the goal of SWIFT is to “fill in the gaps” and ensure Ontarians have a universal standard in internet speeds.

“What we want to do from this is take the key learning’s from these three pilot projects upon their completion, and then roll out what we learn from there to the remaining region of southwestern Ontario,” said O’Brien. “It’s a very complicated environment, so we want to make sure we get it right.”

SWIFT plans to release requests for proposals (RFPs) for the three counties this fall, essentially asking companies to bid on how they would best connect as many people as possible with the funding available. SWIFT will be looking at those proposals, and selecting the ones that are able to connect the highest number of premises (homes and businesses) for as little cost as possible.

While building fibre optic networks is a costly and labour-intensive task, fibre is considered the gold-standard of internet connectivity. Unlike electric wiring, which suffers hard limitations on the speed and amount of internet service it can provide, fibre optics are a scalable technology.

Once the fibre has been put in the ground, very little work is needed to increase its speed, essentially making it a “future-proof” technology. The fibre that is installed in Ontario today will continue to be able to keep up with the internet demands of the future.

Rather than build the networks themselves, SWIFT’s role is to find the areas most lacking in internet services  and then provide subsidies to companies to build out their networks to those areas. The companies first have to be vetted and pre-approved by SWIFT to be eligible to bid for the funds.

“We put that out to the telecom service providers to say, ‘OK, we have some subsidies to build the business case for you to go into underserved areas that you normally wouldn’t go into, because some areas are just too remote and there’s not a business case there,’” explained O’Brien.

So far, 27 internet providers have been pre-approved to bid on SWIFT projects, including the giants like Bell Canada and Rogers Communications. But the organization is also looking to draw in smaller internet service providers in the province, and has opened up applications for another round of pre-approvals.

“I think up until this point, there were certain ISPs that were sitting back waiting to see what happened, to see if the money was real, to see if this project actually happened,” said SWIFT chief operating officer Barry Field. “Since we’ve have some funding announcements, though, I will say we’ve had much more response and much more interest in the project from some of these smaller ISPs, so that is a good thing.”

Typically, when an internet service provider builds a network out to a community, the ISP retains exclusive access to the network. But because they will be using public funds on these networks, companies will be required to allow other internet providers to make use of those same networks at a wholesale rate.

In that way, these networks will be more like a private highway or railway: one company builds out the infrastructure, and then others can make use of those same roads for a fee.

With some $200 million being committed to the SWIFT initiative, the project is hoping to see more Ontarians getting quality internet access – a necessity in today’s economy. Yet O’Brien notes the amount is still only a fraction of the total needed to provide everyone with high-speed internet.

“We want to ensure we get the most residents connected. There’s a $3-billion deficit in [internet] infrastructure in southwestern Ontario alone,” he said. “Our project, the funding that we have, the funding that we’ve been approved for right now is $209 million. So yes it’s a good start, but there’s still more than can be done down the road.”

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