The Ontario budget included a commitment to vibrant, strong communities and monies for regional economic development projects, municipal infrastructure and youth entrepreneurship. That is positive and something rural communities clearly can embrace.
However, the budget statement fell short of clearly and directly responding to one critical piece of the puzzle that will be essential for rural Ontario communities to support local economies, retain and train creative talent and position small town businesses to respond to global opportunities.
The budget was silent on the question of what the provincial government intended to do about needed investments in broadband infrastructure. Many homes and businesses in rural and small town Ontario cannot get the high speed, fibre based connectivity that will be required to support advanced applications – the speedy, interactive, data intensive upload and download uses that will drive business innovation, provide access to distance education/training or allow new technologies for efficient health care delivery.
One of the most cost effective ways to overcome access challenges to government services in remote places is to invest in telecommunications access. Government support for proper network development has been piecemeal and uneven for rural Canada/Ontario. Other jurisdictions are passing us by.
Australia for one has a much more ambitious target for rural high speed than we do. Their plan is to deliver fibre-based broadband to 93 percent of the population in a project that is being built by the public sector and will be available to the private sector for competitive service options.
Rural telecommunications infrastructure is critical to enable our small towns to keep and train local creative talent and attract entrepreneurs who can access markets and customers across the globe and interact successfully with partners in nearby urban centres. It is in the long term interest of sustainable and fair economies that we make “fibre for all” our long term vision and start working toward it.
At the Southwest Economic Alliance (SWEA) we refer to it as “opportunities without borders”. Our call to action is nothing less than ultra-high-speed broadband, available in every part of our region, regardless of population density.
The Intelligent Community Forum (ICF), an international organization studying communities adapting to the knowledge economy and promoting broadband, has developed a compelling case for what they refer to as the rural imperative.
In the absence of long-term strategic leadership by provincial and federal government representatives on this issue we find instead local jurisdictions doing the best they can, filling in the vacuum, leading by example and marshalling the evidence for investment. The city of Stratford is a notable example.
Following the experience of the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus, the Western Ontario Wardens’ Caucus is collecting the information and building the case in an on-going feasibility study that will lead to a blueprint for a desired future state broadband network that will clearly require a public-private partnership to achieve.
This is entirely aligned and consistent with the emphasis of SWEA on fostering the intelligent region, benchmarking and supporting developments by individual communities within the region.
SWEA’s upcoming 2013 Assembly June 13 and 14 in Goderich will explore the many dimensions of the intelligent region including an implementation plan for the project, which is already underway. Highlighting local successes and the evolving role of broadband in furthering the social and economic development of the region, the conference is one of a series designed to rally support and coordinate action. For full details and registration link to: www.swea2013.ca.
Serge Lavoie, President, Southwest Economic Alliance