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Counties digging in to fibre optic network plan

Rural fibre optic plan not moving swiftly enough for some, but it takes time to spend $200M of public funds wisely.
File photo

The job of getting rural areas connected to high-speed internet is a slow one.

But for Geoff Hogan, the executive director of SouthWestern Integrated Fibre Technology Initiative – or SWIFT for short – moving slowly is key.

“Residents, businesses and politicians all want this to happen quicker, but it can’t be rushed. We want to spend this money wisely,” he told Barrie Today.

He’s working towards seeing $300 million in fibre optic cable being laid in 2018, a project made possible by almost $200 million in public cash. 

A consortium of counties, including Simcoe County, the cooperative municipal project applied for – and received – a total of $180 million in federal and provincial funding to connect areas of Simcoe, Grey, counties along the Lake Huron shoreline as well as rural communities in southwestern Ontario, Caledon and Niagara.

County wardens and municipal leaders argued connectivity is critical in today’s wired world and rural areas were at a distinct disadvantage.

“This is a project that was started by the municipalities and we applied for funding from the Small Communities Fund,” Hogan recalled of the July 2016 announcement.

The project is aiming to connect 3.5 million people with broadband of up to 100 Gbps as well as give a boost to entrepreneurs and businesses so they can compete globally.

“The municipalities have put up another $18 million, so we have almost $200 million of public funds to leverage the construction of $300 million in broadband,” said Hogan.

“Obviously, it takes quite a bit of planning to spend this money wisely.”

SWIFT board chair, Simcoe County’s Gerry Marshall, said that involves a lot of planning work, which will be the focus in 2017.

“We should be digging into the ground with new fibre optic in a year from today, in January 2018,” said Marshall.

Hogan said SWIFT is focusing digging into what services already exist and where, as well as understanding what providers would be willing as well as able to work with the project, its subsidy and its conditions.

“The private sector will build and operate the network, but we will provide subsidy and oversight. They’ll have to live by our rules,” he said.

The key is open access; if a provider cannot serve residents and businesses well, he has to allow another provider to do so, despite having installed the network.