Community push for broadband access still on

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Let’s get with the post-industrial program – MM2020 is leading the way

By Nathan Rudyk

The “Mississippi Mills Broadband Working Group” (www.MM2020.ca) presented its initial research findings for the first time to our town’s Council last week. This was the same week that our Federal government released a budget that contained the word “innovation” 212 times, and backed it up with a $1 billion “innovation agenda” ­that made reference to genomics, clean technology, quantum computing, self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, mobile payments and the “sharing economy” that’s given rise to huge new companies like Uber and Airbnb.

It’s clear from the findings of the MM2020 volunteers – many of whom have distinguished innovation credentials – that our community has to take control of its destiny, now, if it wants to participate in the economy of today. Not to mention tomorrow. Our dominant copper-cable Internet infrastructure has, to use an old-era industrial term, run out of steam.

Through the inattention of successive councils that hoped this crippling disadvantage to economic and community development would somehow be solved by higher levels of government, the MM2020 team’s investigation concludes that Mississippi Mills bandwidth now ranks in the lowest 16th percentile, tied with – wait for it ­– Tonga, a remote island in the South Pacific Ocean! Nationally, we rank in the lowest 6th percentile tied with Nunavut. More remarkably, Tonga now has a high-speed Internet strategy. We don’t.

But the MM2020 team – which reports into our municipality’s Community Economic Development Committee (CEDC) – is intent on solving this prosperity-inhibiting issue with a made-here initiative.

They are educating our current Council members, showing them how digital infrastructure is present in rare pockets throughout our town, but requires both strategic investment and determination to extend high-speed bandwidth to all residents, so there are no “dead zones” where it’s impossible for innovation and prosperity to thrive.

For example, the MM2020 team found that 61.4% of survey respondents reported a download speed of less than 5 Megabytes Per Second (Mbps). A “lucky” 8.7% reported speeds of greater than 20 Mbps. Meanwhile 75% of Canadian households have access to speeds of greater than 100+ Mbps.

It will require a paradigm shift of our Councillors – some of whom still fervently believe that our bandwidth-starved “industrial park” will be our economic salvation. First of all, let’s call it something more appropriate – like “innovation park” or “post-industrial park” or “knowledge park”. Second, with 21st century-level bandwidth delivered throughout Mississippi Mills, we can attract commercial developers that can develop “smart buildings”. They will in turn attract high-tech businesses employing hundreds of highly paid workers who will bring their families, grow our now-shrinking school populations, and inject new energy – not to mention wealth – into our community.

It’s also important to understand that the nature of post-industrial work as often as not takes place in a den down the hallway in a home-based office versus a cubicle farm. Companies like IBM and Intel have long ago realized that work can and should be distributed via the Internet, and even senior executives can work from home some or all of the time.

Just 30 kms down the road Kanata North employs 21,000 workers in a technology cluster that generates $7.8 billion of GDP. Other than the lack of necessary bandwidth, there’s no reason they have to pay $1.2 million for a well-equipped two-story home in Westboro when the same-time commute from Mississippi Mills will get them to a home that costs between $400,000 and $500,000.

So the idea that we can extend high-bandwidth infrastructure to “only some” locations in our community means missing out on attracting those tele-commuters just down March Road who might just as soon live off-grid on a sizeable acreage as in a subdivision. Our bandwidth-driven economic development approach can reasonably aim at attracting our “unfair share” of those workers, and related economic activity.

There is also no reason whatsoever that we can’t attract several “anchor tenant” companies with dozens or even hundreds of those workers. If we had the bandwidth and the distributed employees those companies require, our post-industrial park could be home to next-generation companies in the aforementioned genomics, clean technology, quantum computing, self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, mobile payments and sharing economy sectors.

Not to mention how high-speed Internet access could dramatically increase the quality of care at our already excellent healthcare institutions.

Speaking of cubicle farms, better bandwidth positively impacts the people who put food on our plates as well. High-speed (especially wireless) bandwidth is an economic game-changer on family farms – which many of our “urban” residents may not realize are multi-million dollar businesses.

Heartland American communities like Cedar Falls, Iowa have installed bandwidth that rivals cities like San Francisco and New York City. Farmers in high-speed rural communities use wireless Internet access for “Precision Agriculture” (PA) or satellite-based “Site Specific Crop Management” (SSCM) applications. These use things like GPS-equipped combine harvesters and arrays of real-time tractor-mountable sensors. The sensors measure everything from chlorophyll levels to plant water status aided by satellite imagery of particular fields.

This high-tech, bandwidth-dependent approach avoids waste of expensive chemicals, makes food healthier, and maximizes crop yields – all factors that put more money into farm-gate receipts.

Over the coming weeks, with the help of the MM2020 team, I hope to make an even stronger case for a municipally based high-speed broadband strategy using real-life examples from both inside and outside our town.

We can, and should, create the necessary conditions to attract our unfair share of the emerging digital economy while bolstering the job, learning and healthcare prospects of existing residents. The time for waiting on higher levels of government to “bail us out” has come and gone.

It’s up to us to make it happen, right here, and right now.