Some townships are taking connectivity into their own hands, with mixed results

wifi

As the Eastern Ontario Regional Network (EORN) continues to build connectivity in the vast region, some municipalities that support EORN are taking their own steps to improve services for their residents.  

The townships of Rideau Lakes and Leeds Thousand Islands both went out on a limb to explore solutions to help overcome their specific challenges.

“We decided to go our own route because we didn’t see progress moving fast enough,” Rideau Lakes Mayor Arie Hoogenboom told EOBJ, adding, “We are supporters of EORN and the work they’re doing — it’s great work, but it was going to take years.”

“Although the township supports EORN, it recognizes that the EORN model is not ideal for the township’s particular challenges,” said Stephen Donachey, chief administrative officer with Leeds Thousand Islands.

“We support whatever municipalities are doing to improve connectivity for their residents,” said Jim Pine from EORN, adding that EORN recognizes that it can’t provide services quickly enough or in the format that some areas need.

EORN is currently working in partnership with Rogers Communications to close gaps in cell coverage in the region. According to Pine, Rogers will be building an additional 256 towers and upgrading existing towers to improve cellular service.

“As we build new towers,  Rogers is able to come along and add fixed wireless, but they’re paying for it, we’re not,” said Pine. 

Both Rideau Lakes and Leeds Thousand Islands are rich in lakes, Canadian Shield rock and old-growth trees. In Leeds Thousand Islands, there’s the additional challenge of rolling hills and a sparse population spread over a large area with few urban centres. The terrain means that fixed tower connectivity leaves too many residents with poor to non-existent service.  

Each of the townships took a different approach to the challenge. Rideau Lakes chose a public/private partnership, while Leeds Thousand Islands decided on a publicly funded model supported by government grants.

By the end of this year, 1,400 homes in Rideau Lakes will have gained fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) and 1,200 homes will get 50/10mbs fixed wireless via broadband tower upgrades, while many more are getting improved fixed wireless reliability and capacity through fibre backhaul. All homes and businesses in the township’s villages — Portland, Elgin, Delta, Lombardy, Newboro and Chaffey’s Lock — will have access to FTTH. That represents more than 40 per cent of the township’s properties.

“I think we got it right, I know other municipalities have tried to do too much too quickly, but we also had some opposition initially from our own council in terms of getting into the partnership,” said Mayor Hoogenboom.  

On the other hand, the Leeds Thousand Islands project stalled when the federal government rolled the Universal Broadband Fund program over to the province, which, in turn, changed the criteria for funding under what it called the Improving Connectivity for Ontario program.

“Essentially, the province decided to run an RFP process where only established internet service providers (ISPs) can bid to receive territories to provide internet services and receive funding assistance from the province,” explained Donachey. “I suspect that, if an ISP bid the territory in which Leeds Thousand Islands falls, it will likely provide fixed wireless internet services (such as towers), as it is the most cost-effective, rather than running fibre optic cables to each home, which was the approach to be taken in our network design.”

While Leeds Thousand Islands is disappointed with the change in funding formula, officials are not giving up entirely.

“I have reached out directly to the provincial government to seek answers on how it will ensure high-speed internet access for the township,” said Mayor Corinna Smith-Gatcke.

Meanwhile, by the end of this year, Rideau Lakes will have a $5.2-million system that cost the township $880,000.  

“My understanding is that this contribution rate (16 per cent) is considered exceptional value on the dollar in the industry in terms of rolling out fibre via a partnership like this, especially in a rural setting,” said Mike Dwyer, chief administrative officer with Rideau Lakes.

Certainly, it seems the investment is paying off, because in just the last year the township saw record growth, with 80 new homes being built when the norm is closer to 25. That means new tax revenue to the township will help offset the investment quickly. 

“Likely not in a single year, but definitely over a short period of time, as this is all new development that will be taxed at market value; so good for the township, county and school board,” said Mayor Hoogenboom. “In addition, properties with better connectivity increase in value. So, I believe taxpayers will see a significant short-term return on this investment.”

From a business perspective, it seems likely that installing fibre optic lines in Delta weighed positively on the decision by Willows Agriservice to not only stay in Delta, but to invest in a $10-million expansion.

In 2019, when Rideau Lakes issued an RFP, officials were gratified to receive five separate submissions.

“Unique to our process was keeping it simple and also engaging two independent industry experts to assist with the technical language in the RFP as well as scoring the resulting submissions,” explained Dwyer. 

As a result of the competitive process, the township entered into a three-year build-out agreement with WTC Communications. WTC chose to go with a mix of fibre and fixed tower services.

“We try to go with FTTH wherever we can because we see that as where the technology is going,” said Mike Lynn, CEO of WTC. “Fixed wireless is great and it makes sense in places where fibre is difficult to install. Right now, FTTH exceeds the need but it’s future-proof.”

“We have been able to build a great working relationship with WTC,” said Dwyer. “This has been both at the operational level — such as coordinating roadwork to allow conduit to be laid before the new road surface is applied — and the administration level, which resulted in two grants … being gained to expand the project.”

With the project already rolling, WTC was able to secure an additional $1.2 million from the two government grants, one provincial and one federal, to expand the project to reach more homes and businesses.

“So, it made the project quite a bit bigger. It’s been a successful partnership and we’re happy with the rate of return and compare it to places that have more dense populations,” said Lynn.

While not all the councillors in Rideau Lakes were on board with spending public money on the project, Mayor Hoogenboom’s argument was that it’s an essential service.

“I treated it as the infrastructure of this century. We’ve always been involved in building roads and bridges and picking up garbage. Internet and cell connectivity is the infrastructure of today.”

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