City hosts district meeting on rural broadband

On Wednesday, May 12, 2021 at 6 p.m., Councillor Gary Oosterhof chaired a virtual meeting to provide information on rural broadband initiatives in Kingston.

The City of Kingston has been working to provide rural residents with improved access to broadband since 2020, with the current issue exacerbated by an increased need for home internet during the COVID-19 pandemic.

An image from the virtual rural broadband meeting hosted by Councillor Gary Oosterhof (Countryside District) on Wednesday, May 12, 2021.

“We have all come to understand the frustration that this pandemic has caused when it comes to internet services to our homes in the rural area,” said Councillor Oosterhof, who represents the Countryside District. “Our children’s education has been impacted; our careers, our jobs, our healthcare, our businesses, our recreation and family time.”

There is a major divide in internet service costs between urban Kingston and rural Kingston, and the gap has been growing since 2018. A detailed broadband gap analysis completed by the City of Kingston in collaboration with Utilities Kingston, Limestone Analytics and other partners in 2019 illustrated a clear delineation, as rural residents tend to pay more for lower quality internet.

Broadband is comprised of a physical connective component, fibre, and the service that runs on top of it. Due to a disconnect between incumbent companies who own the physical connections required for broadband and competing service providers, there is a gap in where service is provided based on what profit providers stand to make.

This market failure has created a significant problem for getting broadband in rural areas, and the issue remains complicated and expensive for the municipality to deliver on.

Residents shared their experiences of inequity around extremely high cost internet during the meeting, with some having to get creative through data plans and hot-spotting.

“The challenges of rural broadband predate the pandemic, though [the pandemic] has certainly accelerated the need for change,” said Craig Desjardins, Director of Strategy, Innovation and Partnerships for the City of Kingston.

“A collaborative approach that includes federal, provincial and municipal funding is critical [to address the market failure].”

Kingston’s broadband gap analysis provided necessary data for federal and provincial grant proposals submitted by the City, as well as Utilities Kingston, for rural broadband funding. A decision on whether or not Kingston will be rewarded these grants is said to be overdue, and is expected any day.

Based on estimations, it is likely that the cost to implement new, long-term infrastructure and close the gap will be close to $90 million.

“We have a combination of teams: we have our City team and, of course, our Utilities Kingston team that has been working collectively and collaboratively to try and find some solutions for rural internet for quite some time actually. This is something we started to work on through a study that was done and completed in 2020,” said Lanie Hurdle, CAO of the City of Kingston.

“It is obviously an expansive matter and there is no question that we need support from other levels of government and also probably the private sector. It’s something that will unfortunately take some time,” said Hurdle.

Utilities Kingston has owned and operated a local broadband network service for over 20 years. However, the physical connection piece has a much higher cost than the provision of service.

Estimated construction costs to create connections underground will take 13 years or longer to see payback on the initial investment.

Utilities Kingston has developed pilot projects to address the rural broadband issue and will soon release a request for proposal (RFP) to collaborate on a stand-alone residential service offering.

StarLink, an existing satellite-based internet service solution for those in rural areas, was also discussed during the meeting. Some Kingston residents are currently participating in its beta testing, which is expected to become more widely accessible soon.

Kevin McCauley, Director of Measurement and Communications for Utilities Kingston, explained that StarLink is not a permanent solution to the rural broadband issue, as satellite connection does not have the same expandability as fibre internet.

“What StarLink offers is better than what a lot of people can get in the rural area,” said McCauley. “It doesn’t have a future capacity, as internet usage increases over the years.”

During the question and answer portion of the meeting, residents pressed for more immediate solutions.

The City’s new rural development strategy allows for the creation of working groups open to rural residents, and will feature a working group on rural broadband specifically. The working group will have a component for communications out to the community, and residents are encouraged to get involved even if they have no technical expertise.

The Eastern Ontario Regional Network has been working in partnership with Rogers to address the problem with cell phone service and mobile broadband across the region. Two projects have been underway since 2014 to bring significantly faster speeds and better coverage to the area where people live and work. The work, which will pave the way for increased competition among internet providers across the region, is scheduled to be completed in 2025, with residents set to experience immediate benefit in certain areas.

Mayor Bryan Paterson maintained that it is helpful when the provincial and federal government can hear directly from constituents through emails and letters about the City’s grant proposals for broadband funding as Kingston awaits a decision.

“This is a priority,” said Paterson. “There is no question that internet access is no longer a luxury; it is a need. It is infrastructure in the same way as building roads or sewer pipes or any other type of infrastructure we need. I want you to hear that directly from me.”

To watch the meeting in its entirety, visit the City of Kingston YouTube page here.

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