Big bucks for rural internet cell service

The campaign to bring high-speed internet to all corners of southwestern Ontario received another shot in the arm on Wednesday.The Ford government announced $63.7 million in new funding for the Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT) initiative at a media event in downtown Simcoe.The announcement is part of the Ford government’s $315-million commitment to bring high-speed internet and more reliable cellphone reception to under-serviced areas of the province.The province last month made a similar announcement of $71 million for improved digital connectivity in eastern Ontario.“With all the things that make Norfolk County amazing, there are still homes and businesses that lack high-speed internet, and that’s unacceptable,” Monte McNaughton, the province’s Minister of Infrastructure, said in front of Joy’s Cafe on Robinson Street.“In this economy, to be disconnected is to be disadvantaged. Things take a while to get from the cities to the town, but I think we have waited long enough for broadband.”The $190-million SWIFT initiative is underwritten by Ottawa, Queen’s Park and member municipalities in southwestern Ontario. The money will be used to run fibre-optic trunk lines into rural areas where market forces alone would not provide them.Similar in scope to the drive for rural electrification 100 years ago, SWIFT’s mandate is to provide high-speed internet to every farm and rural property regardless of how remote.Given the rural nature of the initiative, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affair is overseeing expenditures in this area. As such, Ontario Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman was also in Simcoe for Wednesday’s announcement.Hardeman said SWIFT and the province’s support for it are about making rural Ontario “business ready.” In his remarks, Hardeman said high-speed connectivity is no longer optional for the serious agricultural enterprise.“A lot of farms would come to a standstill if not for the internet,” Hardeman said.Haldimand-Norfolk MPP Toby Barrett, host of the event, agreed.“With modern agriculture, you can’t get into a combine with a wrench in one hand without a computer of some kind in the other,” Barrett said. “Imagine now the possibilities for our farms.”SWIFT was launched three years ago by the Western Ontario Wardens’ Caucus. Fifteen rural municipalities undertook the project to address the growing gap between rural and urban connectivity.A number of large, urbanized municipalities such as London, Orillia and Niagara Region have since signed on as key hubs for the delivery of digital services.Nearly two years ago, this prompted some Norfolk County officials to worry that the larger centres would flex their muscle to gain a disproportionate share of SWIFT funding.Port Rowan Coun. Tom Masschaele, Norfolk’s representative to the SWIFT board of directors, says these concerns have proven unfounded.Masschaele reported Wednesday that Norfolk County has moved to the top of SWIFT’s priority list according to the needs criteria the organization has set for itself. This criteria includes miles of rural road, population, and prevalence of dead zones where wireless internet is ineffective.“I’m confident this is going to be what I was looking for and expecting to see from this project,” Masschaele said.“In terms of need, we are No. 1. That’s why this announcement is in Simcoe today. I’m thrilled with the way this is working.“At the outset, I was skeptical. But members of the SWIFT board are very conscious of the equity aspect of this. They get it.”MSonnenberg@postmedia.com

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