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EORN to propose billion dollar rural broadband internet expansion

Eastern Ontario Regional Network (EORN) is proposing a project to expand broadband internet to 95% of residents and businesses in eastern Ontario.
Eastern Ontario Regional Network (EORN) is proposing a project to expand broadband internet to 95% of residents and businesses in eastern Ontario. Mark Giunta/Global News

During the ongoing coronavirus pandemic many people and businesses have had to work remotely.

The Eastern Ontario Regional Network (EORN) says the pandemic is shining a spotlight on the lack of strong, reliable broadband internet in the rural parts of the province, whether it be connectivity issues or low bandwidth.

READ MORE: Internet usage has risen sharply amid coronavirus pandemic, providers say

It’s in the early stages of a proposal to expand broadband fibre internet to approximately 95 per cent of homes in eastern Ontario at a cost of between $1.2 to $1.6 billion.

“It would really be generational at fixing this problem,” said Jim Pine, the chief administrative officer for Hastings County and EORN co-lead.

READ MORE: EORN seeks competitive bids to improve cellular service in Eastern Ontario

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“We’re looking at getting a gig of speed to at least 95 per cent of the residents and businesses.  Our area is the size of Nova Scotia.  Getting a gig of capacity through a wired solution is the best way to solve the problem for today and the long-term.”

Pine notes EORN is getting good responses from local MPs and MPPs as well as the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus, which is comprised of municipal leaders from each of the counties and municipalities in eastern Ontario, and the EORN board of directors.

“I think the stars are aligning to do this very important work for our region,” he said.

Click to play video 'Coronavirus outbreak: Ontario invests $150 million for cellular connectivity, calls on federal government for help' Coronavirus outbreak: Ontario invests $150 million for cellular connectivity, calls on federal government for help
Coronavirus outbreak: Ontario invests $150 million for cellular connectivity, calls on federal government for help

He tells Global News a public-private partnership will be required to get the work done.

“With a contribution $200 million from the federal government and a $200 million contribution from the provincial government and working with the Canada Infrastructure Bank, we can put a public-private partnership that would work with the private sector to raise the $1.2 to $1.6 billion,” he said.

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“It’s money well-invested.”

On Wednesday, the Ontario government announced it was investing $150 million in reliable broadband and cellular service across the province.

Pine says EORN is well-experienced in this kind of work, having already completed a five-year, $175-million project that expanded broadband internet to some of the rural parts of the province.

It’s also in the middle of a project to expand cellular service and build new towers in this area.

“The EORN model is well-recognized as one that can work and get things done,” he said.  “We’ve said to our MPs and MPPs, you need to fix where people live and where businesses are in terms of their broadband needs.”

READ MORE: Massive digital infrastructure expansion planned for Hamilton

Meanwhile,  the lack of connectivity was a topic of discussion for the economic recovery task force in the City of Kawartha Lakes.

According to Mayor Andy Letham who’s on the task force, it was something that the group felt was important for recovery.

“The pandemic has certainly exposed the lack of broadband capacity,” he said.  “Broadband has been increasing in capacity by about 50 per cent per year — since the pandemic, the increase has gone up by 200 per cent.”

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“We identified that as something that needs to go forward.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus: City of Kawartha Lakes extends state of emergency

The problem of connectivity isn’t limited to just those living far away from urban centres.

George Millett lives less than 5 kilometres south of Peterborough.

He’s working from home during the pandemic but can’t get a strong internet connection.

READ MORE: Slow Wi-Fi? How to boost your internet when everyone is working from home

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He’s been told by many internet service providers (ISP) that high-speed service isn’t available in his area.

Millett uses a wireless provider that works by line-of-sight to a nearby tower, but his connection isn’t strong.

He notes that he also doesn’t have cellular service but can “see the lights of Peterborough glowing in the distance at night from his front lawn.”

“I live like 6 or 7 minutes from town,” he said.  “I get excited if I get 100k speed per second.”

“It’s baffling to me, in the nine years I’ve lived here, nobody has shown any interest in even installing DSL. That was big in what, the early 2000s?”

Millett said he needs to do his online banking at 2 a.m. or to drive into Peterborough to get connectivity.

EORN has no specific timelines yet as to when a proposal would be ready or when it expected this project to be completed.