Ontario promising better rural broadband and cell service

Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks with the media at Queens Park, Toronto, as Minister of Education Stephen Lecce, left, Infrastructure Minister Laurie Scott, and Minister of Health Christine Elliott look on, June 3, 2020. Photo courtesy Premier of Ontario/YouTube.

The provincial government says it is working to help rural Ontarians get better connections in these unprecedented times.

In his daily news briefing Wednesday at Queens Park, Premier Doug Ford announced a $150 million investment in cellular and broadband service, designed to improve cell phone and internet access in rural and remote areas of the province. This funding is part of Ontario’s $315 million “Up to Speed” initiative.

Ford said with the province gradually reopening for business in the COVID-19 pandemic, access to the internet is especially important in underserved regions. The resulting Improving Connectivity in Ontario program (ICON), could generate up to $500 million in partner funds for this purpose.

“By investing in reliable broadband and cellular service, we are helping to create greater opportunity for our families, farmers and small business owners in rural and remote areas of this great province,” said Ford.

Applicants can apply for a portion of the funding to support information technology projects. Minister of Infrastructure Laurie Scott said anyone from municipal governments and telecom companies, to First Nations communities and non-profit agencies can apply.

“By doing their part and staying home to help stop the spread of COVID-19, the people of Ontario have demonstrated the need to be connected to learn, work, and run their businesses,” said Scott. “It appears that functioning remotely will continue to be a regular way of life for many in this new environment, and fast reliable internet will be critical.”

Contracts have already been awarded in southwestern Ontario for the improvement of cellular and broadband service, including projects in Lambton, Wellington, and Norfolk Counties.

As part of the broadband initiative, Minister of Education Stephen Lecce announced a plan to get all of Ontario’s schools online with broadband internet service by the start of the 2021-22 school year.

“Our government is taking action by connecting all schools to broadband, starting with high schools this September 2020 and elementary schools by September 2021,” said Lecce. “It is also why we are calling on the federal government to step up their investment to connect the next generation of thinkers and workers to the modern and digital economy.”

Lecce added that the Learn at Home program, made necessary by the closure of the province’s public schools, is vital to ensuring student success.

The CRTC reports that 12 per cent of Ontarians have poor or no internet service, mainly in rural, northern, and remote areas.