Improved access for northern and remote areas has been a point of advocacy for many years for the local business group
Wednesday’s announcement that the Ontario Government is committed to investing $150 million in reliable broadband and cellular service to support and expand economic and educational opportunities in rural, remote and underserved areas of the province, is welcome news to the Sault Ste. Marie Chamber of Commerce (SSMCOC).
The Sault Ste. Marie Chamber has long-held that increased capacity for high speed internet and modern communications is essential to the economic success of northern, rural and remote communities and to the well-being of the people living and working in those areas. The local Chamber has used its role as the voice of business to make the issue a point of discussion with provincial leaders, ministers and staff for several years, so this week’s announcement is being seen as an advocacy win for the business group.
“High-speed internet access has become a necessity for doing business in today’s economy and it is critical that all regions across Ontario access to this essential infrastructure,” said Rory Ring, CEO of the Sault Ste. Marie Chamber of Commerce. “COVID-19 has clearly shown us that access to online tools and communication are imperative to our economy and also play a vital role in education and healthcare.”
The funding announced this week is part of the province’s $315 million initiative, ‘Up to Speed: Ontario’s Broadband and Cellular Action Plan’.
“By doing their part and staying home to help stop the spread of COVID-19, the people of Ontario have demonstrated the need to be connected to learn, work, and run their businesses,” said Laurie Scott, Minister of Infrastructure. “It appears that functioning remotely will continue to be a regular way of life for many in this new environment, and fast reliable Internet will be critical. The ICON program is an important step towards bridging the digital divide in Ontario.”
The new Improving Connectivity in Ontario, or ICON, program, when leveraged, has the potential to result in an investment of up to $500 million in total partner funding to improve connectivity in underserved and unserved areas. Applicants, including telecom companies, municipal governments, First Nation communities, and non-profits, will be invited to submit innovative proposals and lend their investment, expertise and experience to improve connectivity in communities across Ontario. The province will fund a portion of each approved project.
“Creating a strong broadband infrastructure is essential for communities in Northern Ontario. It is a key factor in closing the geographic divide that separates northern communities from major Canadian and international centres and allows businesses to access markets that they previously could not, and to compete globally,” noted Ring
He added, “wider access to broadband will also broaden both the social safety net and educational opportunities for northern communities and rural centres. The internet has opened doors for patients in northern communities to consult and follow-up with medical specialists in Southern Ontario or other areas with more frequency thanks to teleconferencing. Similarly, it has the ability to open up additional opportunities for training in sectors that are traditionally rural, such as agriculture.”
As many as 12 per cent of households in Ontario ― mostly in rural, remote or Northern areas ― are underserved or unserved, according to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.