County to participate in high speed fibre optic initiative
The Windsor Star/Julie Kotsis
The County of Essex took a big step forward Wednesday in its quest to bring ultra-high speed Internet service to homes and businesses, agreeing to invest in a new fibre-optic network.
Councillors approved participation in the Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT) project, which will expand access to broadband by delivering fibre-optic coverage to more than 300 communities in Southwestern Ontario, Caledon and Niagara.
The provincial and federal governments are investing up to $180 million toward the project cost of approximately $281 million. It’s anticipated communities will be connected by 2020.
The county’s first payment of $660,614 is due this year.
However, council stopped short of agreeing to waive its right to repayment of a refundable portion of the $1.1-million investment, basically about $700,000, which will effectively be treated as a loan rather than a payment commitment.
“I’m not comfortable moving that fast without knowing the results of the (request for proposal),” said Kingsville Mayor Nelson Santos.
Tecumseh Mayor Gary McNamara said it was premature to waive the refund.
“It’s almost ‘trust us – put the money up front and you’ll get the end result,’” McNamara said. “It’s a lot of money.”
SWIFT spokesman Jeff Hogan said RFPs will be released in October and the plan is to begin building the network in 2018, with the expectation services will be up and running within three to four years.
Hogan said the province and the feds want to see “skin in the game” from the 15 municipalities in the Western Ontario Wardens’ Caucus who have been tapped to participate or they will not commit their portion of the funding. He added waiving the refund of the annual refundable portion would help move the project along quicker.
Warden Tom Bain said not agreeing to waive the refundable portion will allow the county to see what progress is done and that council can always choose to reverse its decision down the road.
“It’s really a great move tonight to see that we’ve endorsed SWIFT,” Bain said. “It’s something that’s going to certainly help us with our economy here.”
Bain said he’s heard from many small businesses that “they’ve been handicapped by their inability to transact their business through the Internet” and this will allow a main trunk line to be constructed and independent companies to connect and bring high-speed Internet to the outlying areas in Essex County.
Current slow speeds of Internet service and poor fibre penetration rates put the county at a disadvantage in attracting investment, creating jobs and increasing prosperity, said county CAO Brian Gregg.
He said the network construction will allow all providers – Bell, Rogers, Telus, Cogeco and smaller independent carriers – to compete to provide access to users.
The Western Ontario Wardens’ Caucus began pushing for the expansion of ultra high-speed Internet in 2013 and has recommended participation in the SWIFT initiative.