Sudbury·DISCONNECT

After decades of promises for better northern internet, progress has been made — and the promises keep coming

For decades, governments of all stripes have been promising to extend internet service across Ontario. Those currently in power say they are making progress, but it could still be many years before the job is done. 

Digital divide has 'gotten bigger because of how we use technology now'

This bank of internet servers provides service to thousands across northern Ontario, but thousands of others still only get dial-up or cellular connections. (Erik White/CBC)

The federal Liberal platform talks about the importance of extending "high speed broadband internet" across Canada to "open new opportunities" for remote health care, distance education and "e-business."

That's the platform from the 2000 election. 

"The promises are the same, but for lots of people in northern Ontario, access to internet is the same as well. Not very good," says Nipissing University political science professor David Tabachnick.

"So they love promising high-speed internet, they just don't know how to do it."

Nipissing University political science professor David Tabachnick. (Erik White/CBC )

But politicians in northern Ontario say after decades of investments and working with private telecoms to fill in the gaps, that connected future envisioned 20 years ago is close to coming true. 

"I'm confident that we're there," says Nickel Belt Liberal MP Marc Serre.

"I'm confident that we're going to get the investments needed. The challenge is that northern Ontario is huge. This will not be built overnight."

Serre worked in the telecom business before running for office and is now working to make sure northern Ontario providers are ready to bid on $1 billion of federal funding for internet infrastructure, which has been delayed by the pandemic.

Nickel Belt MP Marc Serre says he's working to make sure northern Ontario projects end up with some of the $1 billion the federal government is offering for internet infrastructure. (Erik White/CBC)

The Ontario government is also proud of its $150 million program (that is up for bids right now) to build internet infrastructure in northern and rural communities.

Nipissing MPP and economic development minister Vic Fedeli says they are matching dollars put up by the private sector and wishes the federal government would kick in matching funds of their own.

Fedeli says this comes after years of other funding programs to improve internet service in rural areas. He says progress is being made, although it's still too early to predict when the job will be complete.

"Yeah, decades would be too long. This needs to be done sooner rather than later. And that's why we continue to invest," he says.

Nipissing MPP and economic development minister Vic Fedeli says it won't take decades to fill the internet service gaps in northern Ontario, but it won't happen overnight. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Susan Church started working on this problem in 2008. She's the executive director of Blue Sky Net, which puts together public and private partnerships to improve internet service in the Nipissing district, as well as across northern Ontario.

She isn't surprised by where things are, 12 years later.

"Honestly, not really. Because the challenge was so daunting. I always had a sense that this was never really going to get that much better," says Church. 

"I always hate to actually voice that because I sound like I'm being a 'doubting Debbie' with a negative attitude, but it's reality."

She says despite valiant efforts from politicians to close the digital divide, "if anything it's gotten bigger because of how we use technology now."

Church says it all comes down to money. She says governments just need to put up the "big number" needed to extend service across the north, which, because of it's challenging topography, is harder to cover than the Canadian Arctic. 

"I understand that you can't put everything into one pile, but until it's done, all the money that's being put into health and education and all these other things are leaving the north behind because we can't participate at the same level," she says.

And that list of government priorities is only getting longer during the COVID-19 pandemic, which, at the same time, has highlighted the need for better internet in the north. 

We've been talking about internet service in northern Ontario all week on Morning North with our series Disconnect. In this installment, we talk politics... and why governments have been promising to improve internet service for decades, but haven't delivered. The CBC's Erik White joined us for that conversation. 8:46

About the Author

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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