by Jesse Hirsh 

This pandemic has reinforced what many of us already believe: that the Internet is essential infrastructure. Like water, electricity, and roads, our society and economy cannot function without it.

However, there are many of us in Mississippi Mills (and in the broader region) who either have poor Internet access, or worse, none at all. While this was frustrating before the pandemic, the situation has actually deteriorated in the last couple of months.

The Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) recently released research that showed the average Internet speed for rural users has declined since the start of this pandemic. Rural users now experience speeds that are on average 11 times slower than urban users, who have seen their speeds increase over the last two months.

The primary reason that rural Internet speeds have declined is due to the limitations of wireless connectivity. Many of us are stuck on either LTE, or worse, satellite-based Internet, that cannot easily be upgraded and is not able to accommodate the increased traffic that results from more people working and learning from home.

Similarly, wireless connectivity has limited upload speeds, making it nearly impossible to participate in video conferencing and virtual events, except maybe if all the other residents of the household stay offline.

On the one hand, this is a result of the false belief that Internet access is a luxury and not essential infrastructure. On the other hand, this is a result of mistakes made by our politicians, and a collective inability to properly invest in infrastructure (for our future).

For example, if our municipal and county roads were not regularly maintained, we’d have trouble leaving our homes, finding work, and buying food. Instead we regard our transportation networks as essential infrastructure, that enables economic activity, and allows for a decent quality of life. Why do we not regard the Internet as an equivalent essential infrastructure?

While the Internet may not be as visible as our roads, it is just as enabling, and has a growing impact on our prosperity, our access to opportunities, and even our pursuit of happiness.

Which is why we can’t ignore how this essential infrastructure is created and maintained. We’ve allowed our elected officials to defer or neglect the role of the Internet in our community, and this must change, quickly, if we are to ensure our future prosperity and success.

For the past six months I’ve been researching how small and rural communities create their own Internet infrastructure, and thereby solve their connectivity needs themselves. As a result, I’ve come to two primary conclusions:

  • Full fibre optic Internet to the home is the only cost-effective and viable long term option.
  • Municipal governments must play a role, either as facilitators or as funders/owners of the infrastructure.

Part of the reason municipal governments have to be involved is that the Internet is essential infrastructure. No company alone will adopt this attitude, at least not without a municipal mandate.

Many individuals cannot afford the cost of creating that infrastructure, which includes running fibre optic cables on hydro poles or burying it in the ground. The same way that they could not and should not pay directly for the road that connects their property to the rest of the world. Imagine if you had to pay a toll, just to drive off your land, and that it was cheaper to drive to Ottawa than it was to downtown Almonte?

The Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus comprises the counties and municipalities of our region, and they’ve formed and fund the Eastern Ontario Regional Network (EORN) whose mandate is to improve rural connectivity in our part of the province. Unfortunately, they continue to focus on wireless solutions, which cannot keep up with Internet usage and leaves all of us as second-class citizens, dependent upon inadequate infrastructure.

Here in Mississippi Mills, community members had previously come together under the banner MM2020, which organized for all of our municipality to be connected via fibre optic internet by 2020. While this did result in Storm Internet installing fibre up Tatlock road from Union Hall to Clayton, these efforts fell far short of what was an entirely realistic goal.

As a result, MM2020 no longer exists, and Mississippi Mills is still in desperate need of adequate Internet infrastructure.

Locally we have companies like Storm, as well as Community Fibre (who were profiled here in The Millstone in February). Both are in a position to help the municipality create the necessary infrastructure at a cost far below what larger companies would charge.

However, the political will has to be there for this to happen. Perhaps this pandemic was the kind of crisis necessary to help people recognize how essential the Internet has become, and that action is necessary to ensure our local economy recovers and thrives.

Next door in neighbouring Lanark Highlands, the township is currently considering partnering with Community Fibre to run fibre connectivity to all homes in their municipality. Not only should we be demanding that Mississippi Mills consider something similar, but all of Lanark County should commit to ensuring that our region is ready for the needs of our economic future.

Tragically this pandemic is not going away anytime soon. Many students will be learning from home next fall, and many more of us will be working from home for the foreseeable future. Small businesses now depend upon the Internet to facilitate curbside pickup, and there is a wide range of entrepreneurial opportunities for locals willing to learn how to translate their knowledge and business skills to online marketplaces.

What makes our community so wonderful and resilient is that we care about each other, and we’re not afraid to solve our own problems, especially when working together. We cannot keep ignoring our poor Internet infrastructure, and it’s about time we take the necessary action to solve it.

Step one is to talk to our town council, and our elected officials, as to why they should recognize the value and potential of fibre internet infrastructure. I hope I’ve given you food for thought, and cause to call or write your town (and county) councillors. We can do better.