ARAC requests rural Internet info report

CITY HALL – An Ottawa committee has taken the first step in advancing a strategy from the municipal level to speed up the process of delivering better high-speed Internet to rural Ottawa.

Following the Rural Ontario Municipal Association (ROMA) conference (Jan. 25, 26), Agriculture and Rural Affairs committee (ARAC) chair Coun. Eli El-Chantiry directed city staff to draft a rural Internet information report during yesterday’s ARAC meeting.

El-Chantiry is also the co-chair of ROMA and kicked off yesterday’s (Feb. 4) ARAC meeting with a rundown of the ROMA conference. Always top of mind with ROMA is the lack of reliable high-speed Internet in Ontario’s rural and northern communities.

“We’ve been working with both (federal and provincial) levels of government,” El-Chantiry said during the Zoom meeting. “I understand the challenges the rural areas are having. Especially with kids at home learning online and parents also working from home.”

The business case for greater connectivity is wide and far reaching including direct and indirect economic, social and environmental benefits.

ROMA is recommending continued advocacy to the federal government to expedite rollout of funding; continue to leverage the nearly $1 billion provincial broadband investments; and to continue to work across ministries and with the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, ROMA and local municipalities to identify solutions for increased connectivity to name a few. ROMA says the next step is to evaluate possible municipal roles and that was part of ARAC’s discussion yesterday.

Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper, who is not a member of ARAC, joined the meeting to provide some input as well.

“This issue is a real frustrating one,” he said. “The disparity of what is available between the rural and urban area is striking. I don’t think this council is interested in becoming an Internet service provider, but there are several steps we can take just shy of that. We have the poles, conduit and expertise. Rural service is a priority.”

Of course, the two major issues are affordability and availability.

“At the end of the day you need someone to be a quarterback,” El-Chantiry said. “I hope when staff comes back to us in the second quarter, we have a clear direction.”

ARAC member Gloucester-South Nepean Ward Coun. Carol Anne Meehan says the importance of this issue can’t be understated.

“This is an emergency, and we have to do something now,” she said.

“I know the city has no money and we are not asking for money, but we have so many people asking for help,” El-Chantiry said.

Following the discussion, El-Chantiry proposed a direction to staff asking for an information report submitted by, at the latest, the end of the second quarter (June) looking to improve Internet service in rural Ottawa.

“I would even take away the word ‘rural’, it’s an issue for Ottawa,” El-Chantiry said.

Later in the same meeting, Fitzroy Harbour’s Ken Holmes was on the list of delegations to speak to ARAC.

Holmes has long been a champion for improved roads and broadband in the rural areas of the city and is a member of the Official Plan Ambassadors Working Group.

He told ARAC the draft Official Plan has some “major deficiencies” in regard to roads and Internet.

“Optimism is soon dashed when one reads the Official Plan closer,” he said. “Despite all the talk about provincial and federal plans to address the rural Internet shortfall and that all rural councillors are aware of the problem, the current Official Plan draft uses the word ‘Internet’ only once in the entire 264 pages,” he said.

That mention is buried within a rural economic development paragraph on page 24.

“There is zero recognition of the broad impact on rural life, connectivity, family, education, entertainment, family affairs; not to mention how life has been changed when the conduct of business and other habits have had to change during the pandemic; and exaggerated by the loss of local print news; and in a world when the city and councillors are almost 100 per cent dependent on the Internet to inform and engage residents,” Holmes said.

With only five minutes allowed per delegation, Holmes was cut off before concluding his presentation.

“There is significant and growing interest in finding a solution,” El-Chantiry said. “I hope you heard my presentation on rural Internet at the beginning of the meeting.”