Municipality of Neebing Mayor Mark Thibert is happy to hear his community and the other five municipalities and townships surrounding Thunder Bay are receiving a high-speed internet access boost from the federal and provincial governments.

Bell Canada, the Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre and Keewaytinook Okimakanak in partnership with the two upper levels of government announced Friday that over $61 million is being spent to bring high-speed internet access to over 16,000 homes in Ontario.

“Broadband is going to have very far-reaching and important implications for all our various (rural) communities,” said Thibert, at the news conference held at the Northern Ontario Innovation Centre. 

“When you look at things like access to health care, but also education, the work from home concept, commerce, which in Neebing we’re attempting to build that whole corridor between the (U.S. border) and Thunder Bay. That wouldn’t be possible unless we had some element of robust broadband.”

Forty-seven rural Ontario communities and three First Nations communities will benefit from the six projects being constructed by the partnership, although it took a few years to have everything and everybody in place.

“I think it’s a multifactorial thing,” Thibert said. “It’s availability of funding and budgets, that’s obviously the practical part of it. Also partnering up with the right people who are prepared to put the infrastructure into place and those sort of things.

“I think everybody’s heart has been behind it and the desire to do it, but bringing in all the interested parties together is sometimes a challenge, but it looks like it’s happening and I’m very happy for that too.”

Of the $61 million announced for broadband upgrades, the Thunder Bay-Rainy River district received more that two-thirds of the bounty with Liberal MP Marcus Powlowski announcing that his riding will see a $41-million stimulus.

Broken down even further, the municipalities of Oliver Paipoonge, Shuniah and Neebing as well as the townships of O’Connor, Conmee and Gillies (over both federal and provincial ridings) are being provided with $35.7 million to provide fibre to almost 2,700 homes over the six communities as part of the Lakehead Regional Municipal Coalition Fibre Project.

Powlowski acknowledged it took some time to have the money working for the rural communities and he would have liked to see it come to fruition a little earlier in these times of COVID-19.

“The easy answer is nothing happens quickly with government,” Powlowski said. “Certainly, it has been a long while in coming.

“I hoped that funding for those communities — Conmee, Oliver Paipoonge, Neebing — I thought that was going to come before the last election. In fact, I think it was kind of before the (Ministry of Infrastructure) and they were considering it, then the election came and that put a hold on it, then the ministries have to get reappointed.

“. . . I certainly appreciate the people out there, especially with (COVID-19), they had a really hard time because a lot of schooling was online, kids were sent home with things to do and supposed to do it online and you don’t have good internet connections. I know it was a tough time for (rural communities) and it’s kind of coming a little after the fact now that they’re back in school, now you’re getting the connection.”

Thunder Bay-Superior North MP Patty Hajdu, who is the Minister of Indigenous Services and Minister responsible for the Federal Economic Development Agency for Northern Ontario, said rural communities pose some challenges when it comes to having a broadband high-speed internet system installed.

“When we’re talking about those rural communities, really remote communities, different kinds of infrastructure that needs to be resilient to the different kinds of climate pressures, that’s when I think you have to have a partnership with government,” Hajdu said. “Those are the challenges that every government faces. What are the priorities, how do you invest, how do you make those investments in a quick enough way and when does it make sense to be a partner in the private sector and that’s where we’ve arrived today.”

Tbaytel president and chief executive officer Dan Topatigh, whose company will be installing the extended high-speed internet system in the rural communities, said work on the project has already begun.

“From our perspective, we’ve already started the engineering work,” Topatigh said. “We expect to have boots on the ground this year and our plan for completion certainly is in 2025. The communities that we’re looking to build our infrastructure in, we should be working very impactfully this year and throughout 2024 and hopefully bring it to a conclusion in 2025.”

By John Nagy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 27, 2023 at 10:00

This item reprinted with permission from   The Chronicle-Journal   Thunder Bay, Ontario
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