Stu Campaigne, Local Journalism Initiative
A citizen-led advocacy group for rural high-speed internet expansion based in East Ferris has reached out to another organization in the region known for its work in the field and received some straight talk from its executive director on how to proceed with its mission.
“This is what you can do,” wrote Blue Sky Economic Growth Corporation’s Susan Church in correspondence with the East Ferris Internet Advocacy Group (EFIAG). “Get citizens to take the speed test at www.connectednorth.ca.”
A relative newcomer to the fray, EFIAG has hit the ground running with a growing social media presence that has seen its Facebook following double in recent weeks. This, along with increased media coverage, is shining a light once more on the plight of rural internet users in East Ferris and elsewhere.
According to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), “Any areas across Ontario that do not meet the national standards for broadband speeds would be eligible for provincial funding.”
EFIAG has taken Blue Sky’s executive director’s advice to heart and is encouraging residents via social media to follow through and speed test results are coming in from throughout East Ferris.
Asked by the group about progress on future funding, Church responded there are three local applications in the works.
“If any of them are approved, formal community engagement will take place. Town hall-type meetings will be held to engage citizens so that everyone will know what to expect,” wrote Church. “Your council has provided a letter of support for these program applications and that is all that is required for the process to this point.”
In the letter, Church acknowledged it is challenging to pin down internet speeds to specific parcels of land in rural areas.
“We have long known that advertised speeds differ greatly from reality,” and one reason for this Church said is the “number of users at a given time — when the kids come home from school we see massive drops [in speeds].”
In 2015, Blue Sky Net launched connectednorth.ca as part of its Broadband and Associated Infrastructure Mapping and Analysis Project (BAIMAP) initiative. The project features a search engine for users to discover available broadband service providers at a specific civic address, types of internet services available, and anticipated download and upload speeds.
Blue Sky has learned over the years a lack of available funding is more of a detriment in the application process than inaccuracies in the speed results but the testing is still important, according to Church.
Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) “sees the very same results we do from the connectednorth.ca page as it is the same speed test,” said Church. “That will help with applications if we can get more people taking the tests. We have been assured by ISED the Universal Broadband Fund will refer to the test results when reviewing applications.”
Church said she is certain the Municipality of East Ferris has taken the concerns of its citizens seriously when it comes to internet issues.
“I believe that best practices have been followed. I can also tell you that I am seeing municipalities all over this province and beyond that are entertaining the idea that will debenture their citizens for 25-30 years for pie-in-the-sky municipally-owned projects that will never see the light of day,” she advised. “Their tax base is too small to support the cost of owning such infrastructure that needs constant upgrading and expansion.”
Through Blue Sky’s involvement in the quest for Northern broadband upgrades, Church has adopted a pragmatic approach, one she shared with the advocacy group from East Ferris.
“As I am certain you are well aware,” said Church, “if it was easy it would be here and the reason it isn’t is simple. In Northern Ontario, due to the low population, difficult geography and topography, and little return for the private sector, we are on the deficient side of the digital divide.”
Stu Campaigne is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of BayToday.ca. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada