The Ontario government is committing nearly $1 billion over six years to improve and expand broadband internet and cellular access across the province.
In the village of Minden on Wednesday afternoon, Premier Doug Ford announced an additional investment of $680 million on top of $315 million announced in 2019 to support the province’s “Up to Speed: Ontario’s Broadband and Cellular Action Plan.”
“Reliable, high-speed internet is no longer a luxury, it is necessary for everyday life,” said Ford. “It allows people to bank, shop, learn to get their news or watch their favourite movies and we take that for granted.”
Ford says providing high-speed internet to communities like Minden, about 100 kilometres north of Peterborough, will create “good jobs” and unlock “new opportunities” for businesses and people.
“With the world online these days, if we are going to attract more investment to Ontario and compete in this highly competitive global marketplace, we need every part of our province connected with high-speed Internet,” said Ford, noting how more people have turned to internet since the coronavirus pandemic.
The province says more than 1.4 million people in Ontario do not have broadband or cellular access and up to 12 per cent of households (mostly rural, remote or Northern areas) are “underserved or unserved,” according to Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission data.
Minister of Infrastructure Laurie Scott called Wednesday’s announcement a “watershed moment” for broadband. The MPP for Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock says in an increasingly digital world, Ontarians need to be connected.
“This investment will connect even more residents in communities across Ontario to faster, more reliable internet and cell service,” said Scott. “Today’s commitment to connect more people to reliable broadband and cellular service ― along with many others we’ve made ― will make it easier for more people to work and learn from home, run their businesses and connect with others.”
The action plan aims to improve connections for up to 220,000 households and businesses, Scott said, and includes a $150-million infrastructure program beginning in 2020-21 with “shovel-ready projects.”
Scott did not outline any specific projects on Wednesday, stating funding is the “start of conversations” with municipalities and telecommunications partners along with expected support from Ottawa.
“We’re hopeful the federal government will release its Universal Broadband Fund — Ontario has stepped up and is putting $1 billion on the table,” she said.
“Ontario isn’t waiting any longer. That is why we are taking action today.”
Peter Bethlenfalvy, president of the Treasury Board, says the investment is a “signature project” of the Ontario Onwards Action Plan to make vital programs and services more convenient, reliable and accessible.
“We cannot afford to be an offline government in an online world,” said Bethlenfalvy.
The investment announced Wednesday also doubles funding for the Improving Connectivity in Ontario (ICON) program announced in June, bringing the new total to $300 million, said Scott. She said the program now has the potential to leverage more than $900 million in total partner funding to improve connectivity across Ontario.
Ontario has also partnered with the Eastern Ontario Regional Network (EORN) to invest $71 million in a $213-million project to improve access to cellular service and mobile broadband in Eastern Ontario.
Andy Letham, Mayor of the City of Kawartha Lakes and Brent Devolin, mayor of Minden Hills Township, both expressed their gratitude for Wednesday’s announcement.
“It will help connect more homes and businesses in Ontario communities and increase their economic competitiveness,” said Letham. “And improve the quality of life for residents and businesses.”
The action plan says coverage for internet connections should be at speeds of at least 50 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 10 Mbps upload.
Rocco Rossi, president & CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber welcomes the additional investments to help underserved communities.
“Canada’s telecommunications network is one of the most advanced networks in the world,” he said. “The vast majority of heavy lifting has been done by the private sector which has invested heavily in digital infrastructure. However, there remains unserved and underserved communities that require the government to step in.
“For business, health care and education, particularly those workers practicing physical distancing, connectivity is necessary to ensure they can remain productive by using digital tools such as video conferencing. Without adequate access, those in rural and remote regions will be vulnerable to additional layoffs and business closures. We hope to see the federal government consider how to both expedite and increase the federal investment for broadband connectivity to help further support Ontarians in unserved and underserved communities.”