The timely matter of improving internet access for under-serviced areas came before council during the May 28 Committee of the Whole Meeting. After discussing a Report from CAO Marcia Wallace that recommended encouraging internet providers to connect more of Prince Edward County, council decided the first step to be taken should be public consultation followed by issuing an expression of interest (EOI).
In the report, it had been initially recommended that council direct staff to issue an RFP to internet providers. The report also notes that the pandemic has also brought to light the many pitfalls of internet service throughout the County.
“Reliable internet is a critical infrastructure for all communities, but one that has been noticeably lacking for residents in rural communities such as Prince Edward County,” wrote CAO Marcia Wallace. “This gap in infrastructure has become all the more noticeable given the COVID-19 pandemic and the move to on-line platforms for a range of services from health care to education to e-commerce.”
In her report, the CAO suggested the municipality forego annual tower rental revenues in favour of the RFP that would request bidders itemize what they could provide in terms of internet should the municipal infrastructure be available to them to broadcast transmissions. They would also have access to the County’s unused fibre optic capabilities.
The ultimate goal of this RFP would be to encourage private sector development of infrastructure, allowing for better internet access County-wide.
Councillor John Hirsch took issue with foregoing revenue in hopes of bettering internet access using providers that, so far, have fallen short of the task for many rural and remote locations.
“We’re being asked to forego $40,000 per year for rent with the thought that people mentioned in this report would be able to provide better service to the so called last mile,” said Hirsch. “I don’t see how losing that amount of money is going to result in success from the same companies who have not been able to satisfy the needs of the County in the past.”
The last mile, referred to by Hirsch, is the term used by the Government of Canada when describing rural and remote areas that have yet to receive reliable internet.
Hirsch also questioned the municipality’s involvement with the Eastern Ontario Rural Network (EORN) with regards to their project to improve rural broadband access.
Similarly, Councillor Janice Maynard argued that EORN needed to refocus on rural internet access, having focused more heavily on rural cellular coverage in recent years.
“I think we should be going back to EORN. We know now that they need to refocus their priority on internet instead of cellular coverage because the first part of the job was not completed,” Maynard iterated. “We have children now doing school from home and this is an absolute requirement. I think cellular coverage is a distant priority to having reliable internet, so how do we make that happen?”
Maynard also questioned how providing free access to preexisting infrastructure would improve internet or encourage providers to build their own towers locally.
“The idea is if any of these smaller players have some ideas and think they can help bring internet to parts of the community and they need to set up a tower and access dark fibre-of which we have excess-then, as it stands, we would make them pay for that. In order to not make them pay thereby incentivizing that behaviour, we’re proposing we’d enter into agreements without charging people,” explained Wallace. “The loss of income is because if we can’t charge the new players who are going to do things, then we can’t charge the people who are going month to month with us on a similar activity. It’s not we think that existing towers are in the right location and we need more towers there, it just levels the playing field.”
Citing the increased number of those working form home, let alone children accessing curriculum online, Councillor Brad Nieman asserted the loss of revenue is worth the potential gains.
“I can support this and I know it’s $40,000 per year that we’re foregoing, but there’s a lot of places in the County that don’t have reliable internet and if we can ‘dangle a carrot’ to get a company that will provide that to us, it’s well worth the money,” stated Nieman. “It’s only for five years. If nothing happens in that five years, or something else comes up, that amount is not a bad investment to try and get the extreme areas the internet they need. More people are working from home and many kids are at home. We’ve got to get them a chance to continue that. The $40,000 investment is not that bad.”
The CAO’s Report admits the municipality has little data as to what homes and businesses would constitute the last mile here in the County.
Given that, Councillor Bill Roberts proposed public consultation to help ascertain where the gaps in internet lie.
“I don’t know where the real gaps are in in the county in terms of service and speed delivery, but if we invited our residents and perhaps visitors to contribute where those gaps are, that’s a way of engaging in conversation,” he said.
The CAO supported the notion of consulting with the public before engaging internet providers.
“If we did an EOI, we could do the consultation first in order to figure out what precisely is the problem we’re trying to solve and in which areas, resulting in a more specific ask,” said Wallace. “Then, we could do an expression of interest asking which provider would be able to fix the particular problems addressed through public input and in what manner. We had not recommended the expression of interest option in the report, but I think it’s an equally viable option.”
Given the large volume of people now relying on internet for everything from work meetings to school work, Mayor Steve Ferguson stressed the importance of conducting public consultation in a timely manner referring to the issue as being one wherein “time is of the essence”.
Considering the County has unreliable internet in places, mail-out input along with online input was suggested, with a timeline that allows for Canada Post delays due to COVID-19. The CAO provided a rough estimate of three weeks to complete the public consultation.
The motion to accept the report and move ahead with both public consultation and subsequent EOI was carried.