Challenges and Potential Solutions for Northern Ontario’s Internet Service

By: Sean McGowan

The Government of Ontario recently committed $1Billion towards improving internet infrastructure in Northern Ontario. This funding adds to the $6Billion in investments that the Government of Canada has allocated nationwide through the Universal Broadband Fund. This is a good sign for Northern Ontario, where internet service speeds and coverage greatly trail behind what is available in the south of the province. With COVID-19 lockdowns creating an even greater reliance on the internet than ever before, this funding could not have come at a better time. Still, some challenges have required communities to get creative in securing connections while other communities have been left behind, which shows a need for clear policy solutions by the government for the future.

A study by the Blue-Sky Economic Growth Corporation found that the average internet speed in Northern Ontario was 9Mbps download speed and 5Mbps upload speed (also referred to as 9/5 Mbps in short). This speed is below the threshold of 50/10 Mbps that the Canadian government has deemed necessary to telework, participate in e-learning, and access telehealth. The North’s speeds are also well below the 65/16 Mbps that Telus and Bell customers enjoy on average in Toronto. Improved internet speeds will help marginalized communities in the North access education and healthcare services at greater convenience. Simultaneously, faster internet will also assist corporations, particularly in the resource extraction industry, gain a competitive advantage and use more advanced technologies in their work.

A sparse population and rugged terrain in Northern Ontario mean communities have trouble pitching their case to the the large telecommunications companies to service their areas. Northern Ontario has a population density of 0.9 people per square kilometre, and the rugged, rocky terrain of the Canadian shield makes construction projects costly and cumbersome for internet service providers. The inability to bury wires and high attachment rates on hydro polls, which is a fee that the government of Ontario charges, poses additional market entry barriers. This has caused the installation of broadband cables to be expensive, reducing the bottom line for telecom companies and hindering their return on investment. Lastly, many telecommunications projects need to coordinate with road and powerline construction to accommodate the high cost of laying or hanging the wire due to the expense.

The most significant and onerous barrier that Northern Ontario faces to securing better internet is that most internet infrastructure in Canada is owned by one of the big telecommunication companies that operate as an oligopoly that crowd out smaller companies in the industry. This has deemed Canada the reputation, described by the Financial Post, as having one of the most restrictive telecom networks globally, ranking alongside Iceland, South Korea, Mexico and Japan. Communities deemed “NWD” or “not worth doing” by one of the big telecommunication companies are in a state of limbo, scrambling to find their own solutions in servicing their areas’ telecommunication needs. Additionally, the Ontario Government’s “Up to Speed Plan” has identified that existing government connectivity programs often lack a unified direction or strategy to complete the project’s goals and attract viable private sector partners. There is, therefore, a need for greater communication and collaboration procurement amongst governments to aid those communities that are currently unable to attract private telecommunications investments.

Moving forward, there are many unique options that governments and community organizations can explore. The first option, which the government has seemed to prioritize, is a public/private partnership between telecom companies and community stakeholders that can benefit the communities that have been unserved or underserved by the current system. This option emphasizes existing structures that have been put in place and is where most of the Ontario Government’s funding is going in the near future.

Many communities have explored a utility lease model, where communities build the infrastructure and then rent the system to the large telecom companies to service. This has been done in communities like the North Shore of Lake Huron, Manitoulin Island, and in in Sudbury. Sudbury operates Agilis Networks which is the largest of its kind in Ontario. The community lease model poses a viable option for places that need to incentivize larger telecom companies to service their communities.

Lastly, the latest most innovative policy has come from the Government of Canada’s suggestion of launching a satellite system to provide internet service in remote regions. This is a concept developed by Elon Musk which he calls Starlink. This option would operate LTE networks in remote areas via satellite with no need for wiring. This option is still in the early stages of development but could be the future of Canadian telecom creating a more competitive network for all areas of the country.

Ultimately, the government’s investment in internet infrastructure for Northern Ontario is a promising sign for making the province more competitive and closing the connectivity gap between the North and South. Roadblocks stand in the way, but the government faces several clear policy options which can shape the province’s future.

Sean McGowan is a first year Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. Sean has previous experience working at Western University’s Centre for Urban Policy and Local Governance and Leadership and Democracy Lab as a research assistant and a political risk analyst, respectively. He has interests in urban, environmental, and energy policy. Sean holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Political Science from Western University. 

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