“The clear digital divide has never been more obvious,” said Church.
Blue Sky Net is a not-for-profit corporation funded 100 per cent by the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario. Their goal is to support economic development in the area by fostering technological development. They look for funding from the government that is required for municipalities to make the investment into broadband technologies, and look to form relationships between the public and private sector to make broadband projects happen.
Church said the issue of providing internet to more rural areas, especially in the north, is a very complicated one.
“Broadband is not something that you just hook up to a pole and go on with your day,” Church said. “It’s a very complex, expensive, difficult subject.”
“If there was a business case to build a high-speed network everywhere in rural northern Ontario, it would be done,” she said.
“It’s a completely different kettle of fish in the north,” she said. “With the high cost of broadband, it is not a reality for small municipalities in northern Ontario to contribute funding to these projects.”
When asked whether or not it was just a waiting game for some internet technologies to drop in price, enough for a smaller municipality to be able to justify the expenditure, Church said that’s not the main problem.
“I think our government has to rise to the occasion and realize that we need help, and the help doesn’t necessarily come by giving it to large telecoms whose only interest is plucking the low-hanging fruit in the more urban parts of the rural areas,” she said.
As far as internet infrastructure upgrades go, like the recently announced fibre installation and Elon Musk’s Starlink, Church said they can be a double-edged sword. She explained that while they may be upgrading the quality of internet to residents near a population centre, the company doing that may not have as much of a focus on improving internet in rural areas. So the companies that were previously offering internet to both rural and urban areas will lose a portion of their urban customers who switch to the newer provider, thus making it harder to afford to expand or even continue providing internet to rural customers.
“If that happens, and everyone gets excited that they’ve got fibre in their downtown core, all the folks who live in the rural areas are going to lose what they have now,” she said.
“Councils have a balancing decision to make,” she said. “They have to really think of all of the residents in their community.”
Church said it’s not really a technology issue at the moment, but more so a problem local councils can take action to work on now.
“It’s not just ‘wait until it becomes cheap enough to work,’ it’s going to be ‘let’s push our government to make sure that the funding that is available is spread through in the most effective way to deliver broadband to the whole community,’” she said.
STORY BEHIND THE STORY: Internet availability in rural areas has become even more crucial since many have shifted to working and going to school from home. But in Almaguin connectivity is still illusive for many.