Connect Ontario programs left in limbo pending review

Two Ontario programs designed to help municipalities build Web portals and provide broadband Internet access have been put on hold indefinitely while the provincial government assesses its infrastructure priorities.

Minister of Public Infrastructure Renewal David Caplan issued a release on Tuesday saying that the government is working towards a 10-year plan for infrastructure spending. Areas under scrutiny include roads, schools, hospitals and public transit systems.

The document does not specify Internet infrastructure, but Neil Trotter, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, confirmed Thursday that regional Internet development will also be affected.

Specifically, Connect Ontario: Partnering for Smart Communities (COPSC) and Connect Ontario: Broadband Regional Access (COBRA) have been removed as options for municipalities in the province pending government review. A report detailing their future, as well as all of Ontario’s other infrastructure considerations, is expected before the end of the year.

“No decisions have been taken at this time as to what the future of the (Connect Ontario) plan would be,” said Trotter. “Both programs have been placed under review. Existing projects will still be supported, but no new projects are being funded at this time.”

Trotter said all affected communities have been notified of the change via letter.

COPSC was a $17.3-million project first announced in July 2003 as a way for Ontario’s smaller communities to provide a level of online services on par with those of larger metropolitan areas. “This is to make sure we bring these communities up to provide a level playing field in the province,” said Associate Minister of Enterprise, Opportunity and Innovation David Turnbull, at the time. More than 40 municipalities submitted proposals and 16 were chosen for funding of up to $1.1 million each.

To date, 11 communities have received funding through the project, according to Trotter, and will continue to receive government support.

One of those 11 is Hastings-Quinte, which is due to complete its portal sometime next year, according to Joan Bongard, project manager for HQnet.

Bongard also serves as Eastern Ontario director for Regional Networks for Ontario (RNO), a consortium of communities dedicating to boosting telecommunications infrastructure across the province.

She said that the RNO had first been notified of the government’s plans to put Connect Ontario on hold in June. According to Bongard, several communities that had received government approval for Web development funding have been left out in the cold because they didn’t have a contract in hand before the government reconsidered its plans.

“It concerns me greatly,” she said. “In my particular community, it doesn’t have a big impact because we had a signed contract with them, so things will go on regardless. But where it does concern me is more on the broadband end of things.”

COBRA, the other Connect Ontario program, was a $55-million project designed to bring broadband access to remote communities in the province. Only three regions have been given the go-ahead to date, according to Trotter, and those contracts will be honoured by the government. He said that 39 proposals were originally submitted.

Projects that are underway will be reviewed to determine their success and the future of COBRA and COPSC, he said. He could not say how they will be evaluated or by whom.

Information on both COBRA and COPSC was available on the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade’s Web site until approximately 2:00 p.m. Thursday, but was removed after asked if the pages were scheduled to be updated.

Bongard said that many of the regions she represents for the RNO were counting on funding to help them build a broadband infrastructure. “This is going to be quite devastating to them. . . . In a lot of the rural areas, there really isn’t a business case for a private company to come in and build the infrastructure themselves unless there some motivation to do so.

“Without some kind of a government program in place, the odds of us getting broadband to the rural areas is pretty slim.”

The federal government has broadband options available for rural Canada, but Bongard wasn’t hopeful that they would be accessible, citing a disconnect between various municipal, provincial and national initiatives.

The most recent initiative to put broadband in the homes of rural Canadians came from Telesat Canada and the Canadian Space Agency. Anik F2, the world’s largest communications satellite was recently launched into space after several delays. The satellite carries a Ka-band payload which can be used to introduce broadband to areas unreachable by terrestrial means.


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