Ottawa

Rural internet users say Ontario's broadband funding plan a long time coming

People in rural areas say Ontario's budget commitment to spend an additional $2.8 billion on improving internet access across the province by 2025 is welcome but long-awaited news, as the pandemic has only exacerbated the decade-old issue.

Budget released Wednesday says additional $2.8B will be invested provincewide to improve internet access

Coral Sproule, who lives on a farm some 10 minutes outside Perth, Ont., says internet access can be stretched thin at the best of times, given everything going on at home with her work and two sons' homework. (Stephen Sproule)

People in rural areas say Ontario's budget commitment to spend an additional $2.8 billion on improving internet access across the province by 2025 is welcome but long-awaited news, as the pandemic has only exacerbated the decade-old issue.

"We have areas where we have fairly decent broadband, and then we have areas where there's absolutely none," said Debbie Robinson, warden of the county of Renfrew and chair of the Eastern Ontario Wardens' Caucus, reacting to the budget released Wednesday.

"There's a lot of haves and have-nots." 

The caucus advocates for eastern Ontario's rural areas, and Robinson says greater broadband access is its top priority.

With the latest announcement, the province's planned overall investment in broadband goes to nearly $4 billion over six years.

According to the province, as many as 700,000 households and businesses lack access to adequate broadband speeds or have no access at all. 

Previously, the caucus applied for $200 million in funding from both the provincial and federal governments, as well as $200 million from the Canada Infrastructure Bank, with the aim of improving access.  

Busy families clamour to access internet

Robinson said she's tired of seeing students sitting in their parents' cars, trying to access better internet outside public buildings to do their school work.

"That's ridiculous in this age, you know? It shouldn't be happening."

Coral Sproule, who lives on a farm some 10 minutes outside Perth, Ont., relaunched her farming business, and works with a local food initiative and the National Farmers' Union. Her two young boys also are learning from home because of the pandemic, so internet access can be stretched thin at the best of times.  

Debbie Robinson, warden of the County of Renfrew and chair of the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus, says there are areas with 'decent' broadband and areas with none. (Skype)

"Once you get on to having one person in the home for a meeting or something like that, then it really limits the speed," she said. 

"It's disruptive at best." 

With Lanark County seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases recently and moving to the more restrictive red zone from orange, Sproule is keeping her two young boys home from school, which further limits their internet access. ​​​​​​​

"It's great to hear any more funding and support coming towards it," she said. 

"I think any help going towards that infrastructure development is an improvement." 

Moreover, it's an investment that should help vulnerable people living in rural communities, including anyone at risk of domestic abuse, said Sproule. 

Broadband access is a necessity in 2021, not a luxury, said Robinson, who called the province's announced investment "very exciting."  

She said limited high-speed internet access is a major barrier preventing eastern Ontario from welcoming people looking to move out of the city. 

"We also have to provide them with the opportunity and the ability to work from home, learn from home and just enjoy life in rural Ontario." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joe Tunney reports for CBC News in Ottawa. He can be reached at joe.tunney@cbc.ca

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