The Grey Highlands is moving closer to developing its plan for internet infrastructure expansion, where it will make recommendations on how municipally owned properties can be used to increase internet infrastructure.
At the Internet Infrastructure Task Force meeting on Jan. 4, committee members discussed the current state of internet service in the municipality and how it might be expanded in a way that increases connectivity affordably.
Last summer, the province announced that it would invest close to $4 billion into internet infrastructure with the goal of bringing high-speed internet to the entire province by 2025, and the committee is looking to discover the most equitable way to expand services using municipal properties.
Internet service providers are encouraged to bid for provincial support in expanding connectivity throughout the province.
The committee is working on a final report that will make recommendations to council on how to best proceed with the expansion.
“[Internet’s] an essential service for economic development, for education, for health, not to mention social well being as we struggle through a pandemic, but social activity in general,” said councillor Tom Allwood.
In 2021, the municipality conducted a survey to learn more about service levels throughout the municipality and received delegations from internet service providers (ISPs) regarding expansion.
“Some [ISPs said fibre optic] is the only way they're going to expand, another one said that wireless is the way that they're leaving because it's cheaper and faster,” said councillor Paul Allen. “I think we do need to be encouraging the providers to [think] well down the road because we don't want to go through this again in 10 years.”
Committee members viewed a hybrid model of expansion as the best solution for Grey Highlands. While fibre optic internet can be more reliable than wireless, it can be costly to install in rural areas with relatively few consumers.
“Even when you get outside of the seven major villages and hamlets, you've still got smaller communities where there's only a few customers potentially for an internet provider, so running fibre down every side road, every municipal road in Grey Highlands is an issue,” said Allwood.
“A few [ISPs] have said we can provide internet anywhere you are, you're just gonna have to pay for it, and that's the challenging part,” said councillor Dane Nielsen.
Committee members agreed that expanding fibre optic, where feasible, and expanding wireless coverage to more rural areas is likely the most affordable path for the municipality.
“The hybrid model is going to be the future of Grey Highlands, at least for the short term, if not the medium term,” said Nielsen.
“I think it's gonna be a combination of those three technologies (wireless, cellular, fibre optic), with fibre being the ultimate goal, but wireless technology can cover a lot of areas that running fibre to would be economically unviable,” said Allwood.
The committee also discussed cooperating with neighbouring municipalities experiencing similar connectivity issues, to potentially tackle service expansion through a regional approach.
“Does it make sense to approach those neighbouring municipalities to expand … to a more regional task force? Because obviously if [a] tower is put up … at the border of West Grey and Grey Highlands, that is beneficial to both municipalities,” said Allen.
There was also concern that government contracts for expansion might threaten regional service providers.
“At the county's last meeting, if I'm not mistaken, they expressed some real concerns, not unlike the Town of The Blue Mountains, with the accelerated high speed internet program, and how it potentially could squeeze out smaller providers which we rely on heavily to service our municipality,” said Allwood.
With two committee members attending the Rural Ontario Municipal Association conference later in January, where internet connectivity will likely be a topic of discussion, the committee moved to bring its final notes back to another meeting Feb. 1 and begin working on a final report for council.