The Eastern Ontario Regional Network (EORN) is proposing a new $1.6 billion project to deliver faster internet across eastern Ontario, including Haliburton County.

The organization under the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus (EOWC) announced Aug. 11 it would seek a public-private partnership to bring one gigabit-per-second internet speeds throughout its 13 municipalities.

“This would be a game-changer for eastern Ontario to attract and retain businesses and residents, and to compete globally over the long term,” EOWC chair Andy Letham, who is the mayor of the City of Kawartha Lakes, said.

EORN said it would seek to fund the project with help from upper levels of government, the private sector and loans from the Canada Infrastructure Bank.

Minden Hills Mayor Brent Devolin, who is on the EORN board, said the pandemic has highlighted the need for better connectivity. He added the crisis has sped up timelines for new projects by years and there is high public demand for improvements.

“This is now more important than ever,” Devolin said. “It’s a lot of money, but in COVID times, we’re throwing a lot of money around for a lot of things and I think the likelihood for success is relatively high.”

The Canada Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has declared 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload internet speeds as a minimum basic service level, setting a goal of 90 per cent of Canadians having that by December 2021.  

EORN estimates delivering that minimum in the region would cost between $500 million and $700 million. But it is proposing to go for speeds 20 times that to anticipate future needs.

“Demand for broadband is growing exponentially. Half-measures and baby steps won’t get us there. We need a long-term solution,” EORN chair J. Murray Jones said. “The EORN Gig Project is a lasting investment in our prosperity.”

EORN is also working on a project to improve mobile broadband coverage in the region, a $213 million public-private partnership that is funded and has a request for proposals process underway.

Meanwhile, the County of Haliburton is also looking for opportunities for better connectivity. County council voted July 22 to do a solo application for a provincial grant to build new broadband infrastructure. CAO Mike Rutter reported there are already private telecommunications providers interested in partnering for that, though exact specifications for a proposal are to be determined.

Devolin said how the County’s project might fit into the bigger picture under EORN will depend on those specifications.

“There’s multiple packets and streams of funding and grants as we go forward,” Devolin said. “I’m a selfish kind of guy; I’d like them all.”

Devolin said there will be some battles ahead to advance this forward, but he is optimistic connectivity can take a big step in the next few years.

“It won’t be done in any one magic waving of the wand, it’s going to take a whole bunch of initiatives, all done in conjunction with each other,” Devolin said. “I’m hoping within five years or less, connectivity in this part of Ontario has moved a generational scale ahead. I think it’s possible.”

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