KENILWORTH – If it is a choice between natural gas or rural broadband access, Wellington North councillors seem to be leaning in favour of better internet.
The question was discussed on March 9 as part of the Wellington North’s open forum discussion.
Mayor Andy Lennox said in the past two to three weeks he’d received email invitations for expressions of interest for both natural gas and broadband in rural context projects.
“While both would be great things to have in our community, our staff are already busy. Should we be pursuing these? Or should we be prioritizing one over the other?” Lennox asked.
“Which is the most important, or should we be dedicating additional resources to pursue both to help our community move forward?”
Councillor Steve McCabe alluded to a Wightman announcement earlier in the meeting. The company announced its intention to bring fibre optic internet service to Arthur.
“If it was up to me, and I was making the decision, I would probably lean to providing broadband for our rural areas,” he said, adding that there are a lot of rural businesses and people who work from home. “They need dedicated or robust high speed access that does not go down too often.”
He then asked what role council or the municipality should take.
McCabe said that in today’s world access to the internet is a utility akin to water and sewage.
“Is this another utility our people want?” he asked.
Councillor Dan Yake agreed with support for broadband.
“It’s something we have talked about before,” he said adding here are concerns and issues relating to the lack of the service.
Yake asked for details on any proposed natural gas expansion.
Lennox said the township was recently asked whether it was still interested.
“So is this something the township should be pushing for?” he said.
He agreed in many ways access to natural gas is similar to the need for broadband.
Lennox said, “the interesting thing is that rural residents and businesses could benefit from both.”
He added, “if you look at our population, the vast majority of our population already receive these services as they live in the urban areas of Mount Forest and Arthur.
“What is our role in getting these services to the other 30 per cent (of our population).”
He asked if that is how the township should be spending its resources, considering the majority of residents are already well served.
Yake asked the cost to the municipality to bring in natural gas.
“Do we need to dedicate staff to make that happen?” Yake asked.
Lennox said before Union Gas was taken over by Enbridge there were preliminary discussions.
“More recently there was a letter of interest directed to us. What that means financially is unknown,” he said.
Lennox said putting together an expression of interest takes considerable time and effort from the township. He noted the same applies to the broadband proposal.
“It seemed someone was looking for a project,” he said.
Lennox said preparing the information for either project was outside of the general duties of staff.
“If it were up to me, and it is not just up to me … I would say look at the broadband option and ask staff what is needed to make it happen,” he said.
To accomplish that, he said the township would need to commit additional resources.
Lennox noted Quadro Communications has provided fibre optic cable to every household in a rural community.
He also noted the provision of 5G service was discussed at the recent Ontario Good Roads Association convention. However, Lennox said 5G would not do much good in rural context – even if it can potentially provide high speed internet service and data.
“… to do it, you’d need a tower about every 200 yards,” he said.
He said 5G might work well in a dense urban environment, but in rural areas it is pretty much a non-starter.
Lennox said he believed the true solution would be to lay fibre optic cable throughout the rural areas.
“It is an expensive, but a long-term solution,” he said.
Lennox said the SWIFT initiative has been going on for a few years.
“I certainly don’t understand how it is going to deliver what we need within a time frame which is reasonable,” he said.
Yake agreed the issue is complicated but felt the municipality should gather more information.
Lennox added there are service providers in the area.
He suggested if one service provider was to install fibre optic cables throughout the rural areas “there would never be another.”
McCabe asked if the township could do it by establishing a municipal utility.
Yake said, “the costs for a municipality this size, would be staggering.”
He wondered whether the service cost to rural residents would be equally astronomical.
Lennox said he’d like to be able to run the numbers.
McCabe said, “we owe it to the residents to determine whether it is feasible or not.”
Yake said “we may find that it will cost way too much.”
CAO Mike Givens said the natural gas people were looking for a lot of specific detailed information such as potential area of service, the number of households, and what the annual heating costs were of those homes.
Givens did not believe the municipality would be able to meet the company information timelines.
He also noted that any conversations with internet providers such as Wightman indicated they offer services based on economies of scale.
Givens said “this is not a prime service the municipality provides.”
He said the township would need to build considerable resources to take on as a municipal service.
Givens said 70 per cent to 80% of the township will be serviced once the Wightman project is complete.
“How much is council willing to subsidize the rest?” he said.
While Givens understood the need, he said he was uncertain Wellington North had the financial resources for the project.
Lennox responded that he’d heard Caledon has implemented a special levy on its tax bill for the provision of broadband.
“Maybe that is something we could consider at some point because of the potential long term benefits,” he said.