How to connect the north — mixing public and private $, fibre, satellites and towers
Some say despite years of government funding, still no plan for filling internet service gaps
Geoff Hatton climbs to the top of a steep hill, where some 100 feet of tower stretches further into the sky.
Up here, the president of Netspectrum can see a few rooftops sprinkled among water and rocks and trees that make it difficult for those homes to get good internet service.
These 200 customers around Horseshoe Lake south of Sudbury are about to surge ahead into the 21st century with download speeds approaching 50 megabits per second.
One resident contacted Netspectrum some months back, the Sudbury-based company put them on a long list of potential projects, they eventually looked into it, put up a tower and have started selling internet service in the area.
Hatton says if there were any headaches, they would have just skipped Horseshoe Lake.
"So, it's like Ok, we'll go put a tower up in this other neighbourhood. It's not like there's a shortage of opportunities to grow the internet in rural areas," he says.
And this tower was done without any government funding, millions of dollars of which is available right now for improving internet service in northern Ontario. This tower is an example of the free market supplying a demand.
Hatton says the bill for the tower is somewhere around $100,000, which should be paid off in about five years of 200 monthly internet payments of $70.
But other parts of the north aren't so lucky or profitable for the private sector.
"For a private company to go in all on their own and do it 100 per cent is virtually impossible now," says Brian McCullough, director of business development for Sudbury-based Vianet.
It provides internet service to some 35,000 businesses and homes across the province, some on its own fibre optic network and it has thrown its name into the hat for some of the federal and provincial money currently up for grabs.
He thinks the goal should be running fibre optic cable to every home in the north. It could take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but McCullough says then future upgrades won't require the building of new infrastructure.
"What we find is when we put fibre into a rural area, it's done," he says.
In recent weeks, northern Ontario leaders looking to solve their internet woes have been looking to the skies.
The Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities supported Starlink's bid to be licensed to offer internet service in Canada from low orbit satellites, said to be able to offer speeds exceeding 100 megabits per second to the most remote corners of the region.
Federation president and Temiskaming Shores city councillor Danny Whalen says Starlink and some Canadian companies also planning to launch satellite services, will be able start connecting northerners as early as next year.
He says its time to change course after decades of provincial and federal governments offering funding "carrots" to internet providers every few years.
"If they keep putting new funding into this pot everytime there's a throne speech, there's no real value in making sure that everyone's serviced all at the same time," says Whalen.
He also believes that increased competition will drive down monthly internet bills for northerners and push providers to chase after customers in underserved areas.
According to the federal government's map, the small town of St. Charles has great internet, hitting the national minimum standard of 50 megabits per second download and 10 upload.
That is from fibre optic cable that Bell ran through the town of 1,300 at a cost of $1.4 million, $1 million which came from federal funding.
But no homes and businesses can connect to it yet.
Bell Canada and the federal government says they will be able to get fibre service in the near future, with Bell saying the project will be completed by the end of the year.
"Extremely disappointed. The line's there. Apparently the capacity's there. Put it in," says St. Charles Mayor Paul Schoppman.
"It has to improve if we want to keep the economy going. Regions that are able to tap into the high speed are the ones who will be able to prosper."
Bell Canada says that other internet providers will be able to use those lines to serve customers as well, which is great news for Geoff Hatton and Netspectrum.
The company has a tower in the middle of St. Charles, which was put in just a few years ago using government grants.
"That would have been hailed as a success five years ago. 'All we had dial-up before and now we have 3 megabits per second. It's great. I can do my banking, check my emails from work,'" says Hatton.
"But now it's 'Well, I got to do Zoom meetings, I got to stream Netflix and be able to connect to Google Classroom for my kids' So the need has changed and that system was never designed to fit that need."
He says it's a good example of how, despite decades worth of encouraging words from politicians and millions of dollars made available every few years, there is no cohesive strategy on how to solve this problem.
"There's just really been no established plan to create internet for rural areas until we're done," says Hatton.
"I personally think this is the pivot point that's going to force that change."