About 90 Northumberland residents turned out for Broadband and Digital in Northumberland information sessions that were held Wednesday in Codrington and Baltimore.
Two experts made the presentation. Northumberland County director of information technology Tony Paulic explained the broad outlines of the new Smart Northumberland digital strategy, followed by Eastern Ontario Regional Network chief administrative officer David Fell to discuss the current state of the county's broadband capacity.
“It's all about introducing new technology and new ways of doing things both in the workplace and in the community to make better use of technology,” Paulic said at the Baltimore session.
“It's about introducing new technologies to try to make our community smarter, more intelligent.”
Paulic – who had 20 years experience in the information-technology field before joining the county in 2017 – said the new approach ensures that everyone has the right to receive services on-line as well as in-person. Fees can be paid, information can be obtained, requests can be made, registrations can be effected, all without having to get into the car and drive to the county building.
A smart community is an aspirational goal that has six elements, he said – the essential broadband capacity, a knowledgeable workforce, innovation, equality of digital access, sustainability and advocacy.
Paulic set out the three areas of focus of this strategy, each with its own action items that will be addressed.
The workplace focus, centering on county employees, will see the digital infrastructure developed with investments of talent and treasure based on what's coming next.
The service focus will expand community engagement opportunities, enhance digital service delivery and establish an open-data initiative that stresses transparency.
The community focus will tackle broadband challenges, pursue innovation opportunities, establish a digital governance framework that protects data privacy and security, and facilitate digital literacy in an age where technology seems to change by the minute,
However, as Fell outlined, broadband capacity continues to be a challenge in Northumberland.
The Baltimore gathering did not need to be told this. Members of the audience shared their own experiences – the man who couldn't get internet after 9 p.m., the Baltimore woman who completely lost service due to construction in the area, the Castleton woman who can get neither cell nor internet service.
One man, who pays $150 a month for “really spotty service,” had his own comment to make.
“People are getting raped by these companies,” he said.
Fell – whose previous experience in the technology field includes entrepreneur-of-the-year and employer-of-the-year awards – said EORN has lobbied actively to have broadband declared a fundamental service and continues to advocate for basic service levels.
He described phase one of their strategy, which was completed in 2015, and phase two, which is just beginning.
In phase one, more than $150-million committed from municipalities, the private sector, and both the Federal and provincial levels of government fueled the initiative. Northumberland County kicked in $590,332 and received almost $11-million worth of infrastructure as well as service to three business parks.
Phase two will address the dead spots Eastern Ontario has, even along the Highway 401 and Highway 7 corridors. It will be a $213-million project, of which Northumberland will contribute $668,867. The goal is to achieve 99% coverage, higher speeds and consistently reliable capacity.
Fell discussed a number of challenges in their efforts, such as the fact that fibre-optic cables must sometimes be strung on Ontario Hydro poles, making pole replacement an expense Ontario faces while some other provinces don't.
There's also the need to involve the private companies in the development and expense of these projects, when they also are mandated to make profits for their shareholders.
At this point, Fell said, people are using almost 50% more data year over year – in support of which there have been more than $100-million worth of broadband investments made since 2015.
“The Federal government understands people need access to mobile broadband. At the Federal level, they have spent $500-million over the last five years,” he said.
This includes the newly announced CTI (Connect To Innovate) program, joining the CRTC Broadband Fund, the Universal Broadband Fund and the Telesat LEO (standing for Low Earth Orbit) Program as Federal avenues of support.
However, he cautioned, “a lot of the Federal stuff will depend on the outcome of the election, so we are developing advocacy efforts with all the parties.”
No provincial elections are in the offing just now, he added, and the province has developed a $350-million broadband strategy.
Hamilton Township Mayor Bill Cane said at the Baltimore session that the technological infrastructure is as important to the community's well-being as the physical infrastructure of roads and bridges in creating.
“It's a key cornerstone to the effective, sustainable delivery of programs and services to create a strong, vibrant community,” Cane said.