WELLINGTON COUNTY – Two years after contracts were at last presented, and eight years after the program was first announced, the final Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT) project is slated to wrap up in November in Wellington County.
A non-profit corporation initiated by the Western Ontario Wardens’ Caucus to select projects and award federal, provincial and municipal dollars to help fund them, SWIFT approved four broadband infrastructure expansion projects proposed in the county.
Ground was broken in April 2020, and the first connections were established last year in Guelph/Eramosa, around Eden Mills.
“We were the first municipality under this new SWIFT project to get [requests for proposals] out the door; our area was the first to have bids come in,” said county Smart Cities program manager Justine Dainard.
There were 13 county-based project proposals submitted by internet service providers and evaluated by SWIFT, with the chosen four scoring the best.
The county didn’t get a say in what projects were approved; that was determined instead by SWIFT, which essentially provides funding in a centralized way to entice service expansion.
“The intention is never to cover existing routes, the intention is always to enhance routes that need enhancement—we don’t want to double-install anywhere,” Dainard explained.
Along approved routes, there may be copper lines, too degraded to handle additional customers, or perhaps homes connected via cellular or satellite connections.
Three internet service providers — North Frontenac Telephone Company, EH!tel, and Cogeco — were collectively awarded $8.05 million of a $127.4 million purse to install 197 road-kilometres of fibre optic cable (in addition to one project with a wireless component) with the potential to provide 3,085 county properties with high-speed internet.
The final and largest of the four projects, involving 101 road-kilometres of fibre cable, is being completed by Cogeco.
Upon an anticipated November completion, the line will travel past 1,777 premises—spread between Guelph/Eramosa, around Belwood Lake, and out to Marsville—which could connect to it.
That project alone is valued at $7.27 million, with $4.40 million of the cost contributed by SWIFT, and the remaining $2.87 million covered by Cogeco.
The county has committed to contribute $880,000 from its economic development budget over five years to SWIFT to “help sweeten the pot” for internet service providers, Dainard said.
Each county involved was asked to contribute an amount based on their size, and a percentage of available funding was allotted to Wellington based on its local need relative to the overall project area, SWIFT spokesperson Melissa O’Brien explained in an email.
It has proven a good return on investment, Dainard says.
“We got about $12.9 million of value for the project installations, which is incredible.”
Dainard also said SWIFT’s launch provoked noticeable local expansion of broadband services from competing service providers, particularly in Puslinch, “probably because everybody’s racing to keep up with what they see is now an expanding market.”
Rural connectivity remains a challenge
Despite the SWIFT projects, there remain many underserviced areas throughout the county.
“We know we still have pockets where it’s very, very hard to find good connectivity options,” Dainard said. “It remains a challenge.”
Speaking of rural areas in particular, Dainard said laying relatively future-proof fibre optic cable is “notoriously expensive” and challenged by difficult terrain, necessitating wireless signals transmitted to homes by cellphone towers.
Regardless of the method, Dainard said internet connectivity is “fundamental to everyone.”
“I really feel this is the strongest lesson of the pandemic: it’s essential for us to have that connectivity for every household, for every senior citizen, for every school child,” she said.
“It’s not just a problem of businesses, it’s something every one of us needs to have in order to thrive.”
Resident inquiries to local politicians and county staff about poor connectivity aren’t uncommon, according to Dainard, who said the county attempts to provide solutions when and where it can.
Anonymized information on internet speeds is being collected by the county to gauge problem areas.
As of Aug. 16, 7,703 tests have been completed, but the county seeks greater participation.
“We are encouraging everyone to continue to do speed tests which helps us record the connectivity and the speed of that up-down and latent signal,” Dainard said.
Test data suggests average speeds across the county are, in most cases, well below the province’s stated minimum threshold of “at least 50 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 10 Mbps upload” — a ratio set by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in 2016, with the goal of having access to such speeds for all Canadians by 2030.
The county is working with University of Guelph researchers to process the data and have it available for the province to understand where connectivity is lacking.
“That’s really the only way that anyone has a snapshot of connectivity success,” Dainard said.
New funding model
The province recently changed how it would fund broadband expansion projects, switching to a model where pre-qualified service providers were invited to bid on the amount of funding they would require to complete a project within a certain area.
The provincial government has referred to the process as a “reverse auction” and repeatedly asserted “every corner” of the province will have access to high-speed internet by 2026.
Xplornet is the only service provider in the county to be included, with the province ostensibly willing to provide $240 million in total to Xplornet to provide high speed internet to 97 municipalities, including Wellington North, Minto and Mapleton.
All that is known about any project details at this stage are contained in an email from Ministry of Infrastructure spokesperson Sofia Sousa-Dias stating Xplornet will use fibre and fixed wireless options to deliver service.
“Project agreements are being finalized, so at this time the Ministry of Infrastructure is not able to describe precisely where projects will occur within municipalities,” Sousa-Dias told the Advertiser, adding agreements are expected to be finalized “in late summer.”
Speaking about the new process, Dainard said, “We don’t know yet exactly how extensive those routes are, or what it looks like.”
“I look forward to seeing the maps.”