Mar. 7, 2005. 01:52 AM
Norah Fountain became an outspoken advocate for rural broadband after finding it hard to run her business without it. Water towers like this with an antenna offering wirelessservice within line-of-sight are only a partial solution and she paid $2,000 to tap in. “Even in Nunavut or the Yukon it’s easier (to get broadband) than in Muskoka.”
Bypassed by broadband
Areas of Ontario without it fear a `digital divide' Solutions are costly, hit-and-miss and way behind demand
SPECIAL TO THE STAR
BALA, Ont.—Uniting all Canadians through high-speed Internet access by 2004 was supposed to be the federal government's National Dream for the new Millennium to help Canadians build a 21st-century economy.
Instead, for many people across rural Ontario, who are forced to do business and run their lives in a fast paced electronic world at the snail's pace of old-fashioned dial-up connections, it's dream on.
"In today's world, high-speed Internet access is not a luxury, it's the standard necessary to live our lives," said Norah Fountain, a resident of the Muskoka town of Bala.
Fountain headed up Muskoka Lakes Community Broadband — a volunteer group that tried to bring high-speed Internet to cottage country under the federal government's Broadband for Rural and Northern Development (BRAND) program, only to be told, she said, that Muskoka isn't north enough to qualify.
"We in Muskoka typify the urban adjacent communities that are not remote enough, not rural enough, or northern enough. But I guarantee you that we are poor enough, and we will grow poorer as the digital divide between urban and rural widens,'' said Fountain.
When Fountain moved to Muskoka in 1997 she planned to run her marketing consulting business from her home office, but she soon discovered that with the absence of high-speed Internet access it was "pretty much impossible."
Fountain ended up renting office space in Toronto and commuting. Recognizing that a lot of other cottage-country small businesses were suffering the pains of the digital divide, she joined the other volunteers to write a business plan ultimately rejected by the federal BRAND program.
The federal government's commitment in the 2000 throne speech was to link communities, not individuals, said Kathy Fisher, director for broadband at Industry Canada. She added that the Muskoka Lakes proposal wasn't necessarily rejected because Muskoka wasn't far enough north.
"The competition for funding was tough and rigorous with business plans (the proposals) assessed against criteria such as community needs; anticipated benefits; financial support for the project from community,'' said Fisher.
But Fountain points out that the 2000 Liberal platform — known at the Red Book — is more specific about connectivity and compared it to the building of the railway that linked the nation coast to coast more than a century ago.
She points to the Red Book paragraph, "A new Liberal government will make high-speed broadband Internet access available to residents and businesses in all communities in Canada by 2004."
BRAND was a pilot program that brought broadband connectivity to 900 communities. It was launched following the recommendations of a broadband task force that concluded there was a need for a national network to connect public institutions, local businesses and residents.
"All funds have now been allocated," said Fisher.
There is federal funding to the tune of $155 million for the national satellite initiative bringing high-speed Internet service via satellite links to remote areas in the far north, said Fisher.
The former Ontario Tory government's $55 million Connect Ontario broadband program was cancelled by the current government on June 2004, but not before three regional programs got off the ground, said Ministry of Economic Development and Trade spokesperson Neil Trotter.
One was in southeastern Ontario, another in southwestern Ontario and another in northwestern Ontario.
"But not here in the urban-adjacent areas. So now there is no policy, no programs, no funding and we're left hanging,'' said Fountain.
People living in larger communities in Muskoka such as Huntsville and Bracebridge do have access to high-speed Internet, but the smaller towns and villages are left out, said Fountain.
`We will grow poorer as
the digital divide between
urban and rural widens'
Norah Fountain, former head of
Muskoka Lakes Community Broadband
Existing telephone systems that link much of rural Ontario can't offer broadband — digital subscriber line (DSL) technology — and cable service doesn't reach many rural areas. As of December 2004, according to Industry Canada data, that left 53 per cent of Ontario communities dialing up to get online.
In an increasingly electronic world where not only commerce but also schools, universities and government agencies do their business online and most websites contain files so large by dial-up standards that most computers time out before the download is complete, the frustration is enormous.
"Dial up is painfully slow, it seriously impedes our business,'' said Martin Ford, owner of Sun and Ski Ltd, a Bala business that has been selling high-end ski boats for the last 12 years.
"These days in this business everything is done electronically. Our suppliers send us images that can take us as long as five hours to download,'' said Ford, who says at best the top speed he can get with dial up is 48 kilobits per second (which is slow).
Sun and Ski boats are custom-designed and many of the purchasers are Muskoka cottage owners who live or work in Toronto, Europe or the United States. When they want to make modifications to their order they send huge files over the Internet.
"It's hard to explain to them that here in Muskoka, just up the road from Toronto, we don't have the technology that is taken for granted in the rest of world,'' said Ford.
Ford uses design software from Oracle and if he needs diagnostic help he finds himself communicating with technicians in India.
"They want to do it in real time, but you can't do that with dial up. They are in what we consider to be a third-world country and they have high-speed and here we are in North America and we don't have it,'' he said.
The rural-broadband options that are appearing offer both promise and problems.
Until the beginning of this year, Rob Zingel, of another Muskoka company, Cedar Coast Timber Homes, shared Ford's frustration. "Transferring construction drawings by dial up was almost impossible,'' said Zingel.
An antennae on top of an old fashioned TV tower outside Cedar Coast's business premises and pointed at a Candlelight Communications Inc.'s transmitter on top of a tower changed that.
Candlelight, which bills itself as "Central Ontario's leader of high-speed Internet access to rural business and residential customers," and Muskoka.com are two suppliers offering broadband service around Muskoka.
Fibre-optic telephone lines bring broadband Internet service to the first of a series of towers that relay wireless Internet signals that can be received by antennae, which in turn transmit Internet to homes and businesses.
"Having high-speed has changed the way we do business. It permits businesses like us in the Great White North to market our products around the world on the Web,'' said an enthusiastic Zinger.
That's if you aren't too far from a tower, in a valley or there isn't a rocky outcrop, or even a steamy marsh between you and the signal, said Fountain. "It's not as easy as they try to make it sound,'' she said.
Candlelight marketing manager Germain Proulx said that by using TV towers to get the antennae up high, the company can service most of cottage country.
"But there are challenges such as big trees. That's the price you pay for living in God's country,'' said Proulx.
The price of hooking up to such a system can run from $1,200 to $2,000, which is way beyond the means of many Muskoka residents, said Fountain.
`They are in what we consider
to be a third-world country
and they have high-speed,
and here we are in North America and we don't have it'
Martin Ford, owner of Sun and Ski Ltd, Muskoka
"Because of the price of waterfront property there's a misconception that everyone who lives here is very wealthy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many people here live under the poverty line,'' she said.
Fountain says she is lucky to live in line-of-sight of the Muskoka.com transmitter on top of the Bala Water Tower.
The service has now allowed her to operate her business from home.
"That's great for me, but what about the kids who live here, they can't do their homework projects with dial-up,'' she said.
Another Muskoka resident, Susan Rutherford, of Kilworthy, who lives too far away from a tower to get that service, found even applying to university a "frustrating" and almost impossible task with her "glacial'' slow dial up service.
"I often have to wait several hours before I actually can get online with dial up,'' she said.
Rutherford, 47, who was applying as a mature student to several universities for a bachelor of education program, found the application forms were large-sized files that took so long to download that the Internet connection repeatedly cut out midway.
"Size definitely matters with dial-up,'' she said.
The applications took so long to download that the formatting "was all screwed up" and in the end she was unable to apply online and had to print the forms and fill them in by hand the best she could and then send them by regular mail.
"Here I am applying to teach the next generation in the 21st century and I'm hamstrung by my outmoded technology which is Stone Age compared to Ethernet,'' she said.
Another option open to rural residents is satellite service, but that's also expensive to install and the monthly fees are usually twice as much as broadband service from a cable or telephone company, said Ford who explored the idea and then rejected it.
"As anyone up here who has a satellite TV dish will tell you when it rains or snows hard, the signal disappears, so that's why I decided against it,'' he said.
Sharon Baylis, who runs a bookkeeping business on Port Perry Island north of Oshawa, said broadband isn't available on her part of the island and having satellite Internet through Link Sat allows her to stay in business.
"With dial up only, my business wouldn't even exist here,'' she said.
While the download speed through Link Sat is fast enough, uploading files is much slower, said Baylis.
"Three years of bookkeeping records for a medium-sized company is 18 megs, and that takes me 30 to 45 minutes to upload. The company receiving it in downtown Toronto downloads that same file in 15 seconds,'' she said.
Logie Donaldson retired from running a boat building company to a home on the East Shore of Lake Scugog where more than 50 per cent of the cottages are year-round residences.
"We are all in a high-income bracket but Bell only offers low-speed dial-up and the local cable company, Persona, offers only 39 channels of analogue and are not considering expansion of their service in the foreseeable future, he said.
`More than 50 per cent of
our business is convention business, so being able to
offer high-speed Internet is absolutely critical for us'
John Gowers, Blue Mountain Resort
"This area needs high-speed Internet access and full TV coverage, but the Big Boys will not bother investing in the hardware to provide the services. This is simply criminal,'' he said.
For Candlelight it was landing a contract to wirelessly link all municipal offices across the District of Muskoka that made it economically feasible, by using the same towers and same technology, to offer limited broadband service to residents and businesses within range of its 60 towers, said Proulx.
Bell Canada, which is the broadband market leader in Canada with 1.8 million DSL customers, currently offers DSL service to 82 per cent of its telephone customers in Ontario and has a target of 84 per cent by the end of 2005, said Bell spokesperson Mohammed Nakhooda.
Most of Bell's broadband service is in large metropolitan areas and bringing the service to rural Ontario involves replacing miles of older telephone lines with fibre optic cable, said Nakhooda.
"The selection process for identifying new communities is typically based on an assessment of cost and expected penetration rates, with priority being placed on those localities where the cost per subscriber is lowest and the largest number of potential subscribers would benefit," he said.
It's not only Muskoka that finds itself "urban adjacent" but without broadband.
Broadband by cable service or DSL is absent in much of the rural area of The Town of the Blue Mountains — one of the fastest growing areas in Ontario. Although four service providers have recently begun offering the community, which is just west of Collingwood, wireless broadband service, it once again can be hit and miss depending on the topography and if a household or business is within line of sight of a tower.
Fortunately the Intrawest Village at the foot of Blue Mountain — where more than 1,200 homes are being built — is in line-of-sight with the wireless transmitter on top of the grain elevator at Collingwood harbour, said Blue Mountain Resort technical specialist John Gowers.
"More than 50 per cent of our business is convention business so being able to offer high-speed Internet is absolutely critical for us,'' he said.
"Five years ago people wanted to teleconference, now they want high-speed, that's the way it is,'' he said.
The wireless service at Blue costs the company $1,500 a month, but is super-fast with download and upload speeds of 10 megabits per second and supplies the entire village, said Gowers.
In many places in rural Ontario, the original telephone companies that set up exchanges to serve small communities more than 100 years ago are now bringing broadband DSL service to their customers, said David Bronicheski spokesperson for Amtelcom Communications Inc.
Amtelcom is one of 24 small telephone companies in the province, whose focus is rural Ontario.
"Rural Ontario is our business, so we look after people in remote areas,'' he said.
On Thursday, Amtelecom launched broadband service to its 4,500 customers on the northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula and across to Manitoulin Island. The $10.5 million upgrade included replacing 1970s switching equipment and laying 100 kilometres of fibre optic cable.
Not only has this eliminated all party lines and allows many Amtelecom customers for the first time to use answering systems and fax machines, it also means that broadband is now available in even the most remote parts of the peninsula.
"Next summer if you are up here driving on a back road in the middle of nowhere, that remote farmhouse you see will have broadband,'' said Bronicheski.
While such initiatives appear to be the wave of the future for rural Ontario, they are far from catching up to demand.
Some of the ironies connected to slow progress in the age of the Internet are not lost on many rural residents.
"It's easier to get Internet service if you truly live in the middle of nowhere," said Norah Fountain, Muskoka's broadband advocate. "Even in Nunavut or the Yukon, it's easier than in Muskoka."