Bill could top $205 million to get high speed Internet to all of rural Lambton

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Geoff Greening thinks the cost of providing a new fibre optic network in southwest Ontario will be a lot higher than expected.
The new general manager of Brooke Telecom, which has provided fibre optic Internet to a number of communities including Watford and Alvinston, told Lambton County politicians he believes the project being touted by the Western Warden’s Conference is under priced.
For several years, political leaders from southern Ontario have been putting together a plan to provide better Internet service for southwestern Ontario. Jeff Hogan, the executive director of the SWIFT Project, recently told Lambton County Councillors the $250 million project is moving forward.
By May 12, the agency will begin pre-qualifying companies to help build the core network and have a final business case ready by the fall.
SWIFT, he says, is the only Internet project which has received major government funding – $180 million from the provincial and federal government; the rest ($18 million) is expected to come from municipalities. Lambton County has set aside the $1 million SWIFT expects in reserves saying it wants to see the business plan before being fully committed.
Some councillors are worried about how the project is unfolding, including the timing of actually seeing Internet service in the most rural areas.
Hogan says the idea is to build the backbone of the network with enough capacity that other, smaller companies could use it to expand into other areas. There is concern that could take a long time, but right now, Hogan isn’t sure.
“We don’t actually know the dates and times of the construction until the RPFs (requests for proposal) are closed,” he says. “Then we’ll know where it will be built, how much it will cost, and where it will go.”
Hogan estimates that out of the $288 million to be spent on fibre optics, $80 million will be spent on creating the large infrastructure in southwestern Ontario. That would likely be done by a big provider such as Cogeco or Rogers. About $180 million will be spent on the “access component of the project.”
What that means, Hogan told the politicians, about $10 million would be spent in Lambton “if the dollars are divided correctly.”
The general manager of Brooke-Telecom think that’s far less than would be needed. Greening says conservatively, his company spends about $8,000 per dwelling to provide fibre optics. In the rural areas, where the need is greatest, Greening says that cost will likely rise to $14,000.  With about 14,640 homes in need of a better connection, that works out between $117 to $205 million in Lambton alone. “And that’s not serving any urban people at all.”
Hogan doesn’t dispute the $288 million committed for the SWIFT project won’t be enough. He says it’s estimated the full cost will be about $4 billion in southern Ontario.
Hogan expects the federal and provincial government will continue to provide funding for the important service. “We all still need to keep pressure on our federal government to keep the funding coming so we can finish the job.”
And Hogan says municipalities may have to start investing. He says in Huron County, councillors just approved a special tax increase to make sure Internet service makes it to the back roads.
Greening agrees taxpayers may have to provide some cash to get the service everyone wants.
“Last mile dollars are what is required,” he told county politicians. “The federal, provincial and municipal governments need to step up as well, but we have to start to go to our ratepayers as well. Some people would rather have fibre down their road than have a paved road.”

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