COVID-19 is causing governments to accelerate plans to improve online connectivity, according to the Eastern Ontario Regional Network (EORN).

With the provincial and federal governments both more invested in internet improvements due to the pandemic, EORN is working on speeding up its own future projects, board member and Minden Hills Mayor Brent Devolin said. The potential cost of EORN’s new projects could total over $1.2 billion, with plans to significantly improve internet speeds throughout the region.

In May, the Eastern Ontario Warden’s Caucus (EOWC) approved EORN to continue conversations with upper levels of government on those projects, Devolin said. EORN will look to do them concurrently with the already-underway $213 million cell gap project.

“We all need connectivity of reasonable quality and we need it as fast as we can,” Devolin said. “Federal and provincial governments have asked anybody that’s in this business how can we leverage and do these things in a more accelerated manner.”

The province announced the rollout of a $150 million fund June 3 to help unserved and underserved areas. The funding was not brand new – it was initially announced for this year with the unveiling of the $315 million Ontario’s Broadband and Cellular Action plan in July 2019.

But the announcement came with the province renewing calls for more help from federal partners. MPP Laurie Scott said with broadband being federally regulated, the feds need to come through.

“We need them to step up to the plate to help us deliver these dollars in order to get us all wired into the 21st century,” Scott said.

The federal government has yet to announce details on any plans to accelerate broadband funding. With 84 per cent of households at 50/10 Mbps speeds, the federal government has previously committed to bringing that to 90 per cent of households by the end of 2021 and 100 per cent by 2030.

Devolin said the governments will continue to have talks. What plans move ahead – and how much money will be involved – will depend on the results of those conversations. He added he thinks they will conclude before the end of the year, which should lead to more announcements.

“It might be both scale and speed are absolutely going to be accelerated,” Devolin said.

As projects get underway, Devolin said he will lobby for Haliburton County to be at the front of the line, given it is one of the most underserved areas in the Eastern region.

“For many of our residents within Haliburton County that have really either limited or basic dial-up, it feels like we’re in the Stone Age and it cannot happen fast enough,” he said.

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