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Fast Internet coming to rural SW Ontario; SWIFT gets $180 million funding

The dream of rural southwestern Ontario residents to have access to affordable ultra-high-speed fibre optic broadband internet service is a little closer to reality today after a funding announcement by the provincial and federal governments. Ottawa and Queen’s Park each contributed $90 million to the Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT) project, which aims to deliver high-speed internet to approximately 3.5 million rural Ontarians in 350 communities. SWIFT plans to build the high-speed broadband network so that everyone in western Ontario has access, “regardless of the size of their community, their age, education or where they work.” With $180 million in funding now in place, the project is expected to move quickly to the next phase, accepting proposals from service providers to build the network. The municipalities participating in the project will be expected to contribute the remaining $100 million or so that will be needed for the first phase, expected to last from 2016 to 2021.

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Officials and government ministers announcing $180 million in funding for SWIFT.

SWIFT is a project of a group known as WOWC (Western Ontario Wardens’ Caucus), which represents fifteen counties, from Essex in the southwestern tip of the province, along Lake Erie and northward to Georgian Bay and the Bruce Peninsula. The aim is to give residents within the WOWC counties access to service ranging from 1–100 gigabits per second for under $100 a month. According to SWIFT, communities with population densities as low as four persons per square kilometre will be served. The goal, it says, is to connect “every resident, farm, business and public organization to fibre optics by 2040 or sooner.”

SWIFT will build on existing fibre to extend the network closer to rural customers, making it easier for ISPs to connect homes and businesses to ultra-high-speed internet. Many rural customers still depend on internet service over telephone wires, giving about 3–9 megabits per second. SWIFT says it will solve the so-called “last mile” problem, delivery to the customer, with more than 2,700 kilometres of new fibre optic cable.

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The fifteen counties of the Western Ontario Wardens’ Caucus.

This is a major victory for all our residents and businesses currently underserviced or with limited access to high speed internet. I applaud the federal and provincial governments for truly stepping up and supporting small-town, rural Ontarians.

At present, service providers concentrate on areas with the greatest population densities and are unwilling to provide service to more remote customers. Rates are higher in those under-served areas, service is poorer, and customers have little choice when it comes to finding a provider.

A study done for the Ontario Chamber of Commerce concluded that a 10 per cent increase in household broadband penetration could spur economic growth by 1.5 per cent, and the governments involved in the SWIFT project are emphasising the economic benefits of the plan. Improved internet connectivity will lead to innovation, remove barriers to growth and create jobs, said a representative of Dufferin County, whose county seat is Orangeville. Ontario’s minister of infrastructure, Bob Chiarelli, added that high-speed internet connects people and businesses to the resources they need to compete in the global marketplace. The federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, Naveep Singh Bains, reiterated the point, saying that providing better access to a wide variety of online “tools and resources” would increase the potential for economic growth and diversification in the communities that will be served.

High-speed internet is just as fundamental to advancing the province’s economic interests as roads and electricity are, according to the CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce. Without universal access to high-speed internet, SWIFT says, southwestern Ontario is at risk of losing investment, jobs and development to jurisdictions that do have such access.

SWIFT says it is busy meeting with its partners and stakeholders and putting the plan in place for what happens next, now that the funding is in place.

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