Liberals pushed to close rural-urban digital divide

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At home, the mayor of one of Southwestern Ontario’s fastest-growing communities has to use dial-up Internet service when she wants to go online.

That’s all that’s available.

Strathroy-Caradoc Mayor Joanne Vanderheyden, who lives in Mt. Brydges, isn’t alone.

Canada may be one of the world’s most wired countries, but an estimated two million Canadians – many are in rural Southwestern Ontario, including business people and farmers – lack reliable access to fast and affordable internet service.

An umbrella group for Canadian municipalities, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), wants the federal Liberal government to help close that gap starting in its budget next week, urging Ottawa to adopt a new strategy to bring universal, high-speed mobile and internet access to rural areas.

“Our kids need to have broadband, our businesses need to have broadband – even our farmers need this service,” said Vanderheyden, who doubles as FCM’s third vice-president.

FCM is asking Justin Trudeau’s government to invest at least $400 million a year over the next 10 years to eliminate the digital divide between urban and rural areas.

Fast and affordable Internet access is crucial for economic development, Vanderheyden said.


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“The rest of the world is moving beyond us and we need to catch up,” she said.

Vanderheyden said federal money would help speed up efforts already underway to bring faster Internet service to rural communities.

One of those initiatives is led by SouthWestern Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT), a non-profit group working to build the infrastructure needed to extend broadband fibre optic access to more than 300 communities, including in Southwestern Ontario, with an estimated total population of 3.5 million.

On its website, SWIFT says work on some of that infrastructure, first announced in 2016, is expected to begin this spring.

But even with those projects underway, more will be needed to connect rural residents to the kind of Internet access today’s global culture demands, Vanderheyden said.

That’s why, besides the money, FCM is also asking the federal government to set new goals for Internet connectivity, she said.

“We want long-term, predictable funding for broadband and mobile Internet in rural and remote areas so local governments can plan reliable service . . . and we are looking for clear standards and timelines to achieve speed targets and a new target for a new rural mobile access,” Vanderheyden said.

FCM’s request follows a similar plea made by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, which last year asked the federal government to invest $100 million into providing high-speed internet access for rural and remote areas as part of its 2019 budget.

That budget was tabled on Tuesday.

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