Seven years ago, representatives from across the region made a wise decision to collaborate with one another and lobby the provincial and federal government to support the Eastern Ontario Regional Network (EORN), a $170-million network of broadband infrastructure that brought high-speed communications technology to 95 per cent of homes and businesses.
After the network was realized in five years through a series of public-private partnerships, municipalities in rural areas were able to boast a capacity for connectivity that had always been saved for larger urban areas in the past. As one would expect, this served as a way of levelling the playing field in several important areas. It’s hard to imagine, but when the project was started about one-third of the area from near Peterborough to the Quebec border still had either no access or limited dial-up access to the Internet.
The network of fibre cables and satellites has been an important factor in attracting and retaining business. With a burgeoning creative economy no longer dictated solely by factories and roads, rural areas were able to lure economic developers and entrepreneurs that may not have otherwise looked at this area. Municipal and rural economic developers have been able to sell the idea of a better life based on the pastoral beauty and relaxed style of rural living.
The communities along the shores of the Bay of Quinte may be some of the best proof the idea is working as region is becoming known as an incubator for start-up technology firms. Through the efforts of the Prince Edward-Lennox and Addington Community Futures Development Corporation and private partners, there are vibrant examples. A community of innovators has located at the PEC Innovation Centre in Picton, where they are able to share resources and expertise. Napanee also plays host to its own incubator. Without broadband development, it’s a good bet these companies would have ended up in areas like Markham or Silicon Valley. Now, rural areas can make a pitch.
Broadband improvements also impact another major sector of the rural economy: tourism. Today’s tourists want to be able to connect on mobile devices to find out more information about the places they’re visiting in real time. They also want to have the opportunity to stay linked to their work elsewhere while on vacation. Having the ability to offer those services keeps rural eastern Ontario in the loop as a destination. Smart economic developers also know that investment can start simply with a visit and grow from there. If people relocate, they will help stabilize tax bases and ease the pressure of keeping up with services and crumbling infrastructure.
All of this positive buzz would be for naught, however, if the area can’t keep up with the latest technological advances. That’s why the collaboration and lobbying the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus continues to do on the EORN network is so important. While further upgrades may cost the provincial and federal governments millions, the opportunity cost may prove much more costly. It is hoped the region’s representatives have been well received in Toronto and in Ottawa and that money will flow in order to stay at the forefront of technology in a position of strength in a global market.