Storm Internet owner applauds township for including communications conduit in road project

Looking down the portion of Sandy Row Rd., now due to be raised, alongside the Sevita International Plant outside Inkerman in the Township of North Dundas. 2013 image is ©Google

Should be standard practice, says Birket Foster

Nelson Zandbergen
Nation Valley News

NORTH DUNDAS — Rural roads are routinely dug up for repair  — yet, while the trenches are open, municipalities never think to throw in some inexpensive communications conduit pipe despite the great potential benefit to communities crying for more and better broadband options.

Until now — at least in the Township of North Dundas.

Storm Internet owner Birket Foster is lauding the Eastern Ontario municipality’s recent “groundbreaking move” to actively encourage the prospect of improved broadband for local residents — by adding four-inch plastic conduit at a number of locations beneath a rural gravel road slated to be rebuilt to accommodate a local soybean processor expansion. According to Foster, North Dundas Council has shown the forward-thinking needed to remove obstacles from industry players that could potentially run fibre-optic cable to more homes and businesses.

Birket Foster. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

Having empty underground conduit in place — even gradually — at least increases the odds of Internet providers pulling cable through after the fact — now and in the future.

“Sure, municipalities should lobby and pursue grant programs from the provincial and federal governments to bring greater connectivity to their residents,” says Foster, highlighting in particular the $1.5-billion “Gig” initiative being proposed by the Eastern Ontario Regional Network (EORN). “But there are practical, logical things these communities can do right now to help themselves — and adding some conduit every time they dig up a ditch, cut a road or install a culvert is a major one.”

“When you think about it, if you want the Gig project to come and serve you easily, you had better have this done,” adds the Chesterville-based tech entrepreneur, offering his advice to rural municipalities.

And even if, in hindsight, the Gig program proves to roll out as slowly and tediously as previous initiatives — a recent study suggests 78 percent of a similar 2009 broadband fund went unspent — it still makes sense for municipalities to have as much conduit in place as possible. Because, as Foster points out, Internet projects also happen without funding from the government when there’s a case for them.

An example is Storm’s own “fibre-ing” of Clayton, Ontario, which the private company undertook fully, including the extra cost of laying non-existent conduit. Foster suggests the critical broadband upgrade in that village could have occurred much sooner — by Storm or another provider — had the community put the conduit in the ground in the first place.

He suggests municipalities would be similarly well served to make a standard demand for conduit when developers seek permission to excavate on municipal property and rights of ways — from wind and solar project builders, to pipeline companies and subdivision developers.

The hard way … A Storm Internet crew is shown digging a trench and using a “torpedo” machine (left) to force conduit under a road, as the firm installed fibre in Clayton, Ontario, earlier this year. That work had to be done entirely from scratch but could have happened sooner and at less cost if some conduit had already existed in the ground. Storm owner Birket Foster says municipalities could help encourage more fibre to rural residents by mandating that conduit be left in the ground whenever roads are created, cut or otherwise disturbed for maintenance or other developments — an idea now recognized by North Dundas Council.

Municipalities could even look at charging a rental fee for competing companies that apply to pull their individual cables through a growing conduit network. “Perhaps there’s an opportunity for revenue there,” he says, “but this is really about ensuring your taxpayers have access to the critical broadband services they need.”

And if the pandemic has demonstrated anything, it’s that Internet “really is an essential service,” he emphasizes. “The Internet is everything. It really is.”

In North Dundas, a section of Sandy Row Road outside Inkerman will be raised at an estimated cost of $200,000 — with up to $100,000 covered by Sevita International, under a deal approved by council Nov. 17. The soybean exporting firm plans a $2-million new building plus another $2-million in processor upgrades at its facility on that road.

North Dundas Deputy Mayor Al Armstrong, at the Nov. 17 North Dundas council meeting. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

South Nation Conservation, which has sign-off authority on the building permit, has insisted the existing township road be raised to remain passable in the event of a one-in-100-year flood event. SNC’s demand in turn prompted the township to look to the company for financial help. The improved road would still be submerged by one foot in the event of such a flood, but roadside “delineators” will allow emergency vehicles to travel between the ditches should the water rise to that level.

It was Deputy Mayor Al Armstrong who confirmed that conduit would go in as part of the approved road project — and as a general practice going forward — after communicating with Foster as well as Public Works Director Khurram Tunio and CAO Angela Rutley on the topic. Armstrong noted that Sevita itself may well require faster Internet in the future.

“I think this road would be a good one to start with,” said Armstrong. “Sevita clearly has a use for high-speed. It’s not necessarily that somebody’s going to immediately do it [run fibre] but because we’re putting some crossings there, we should make sure we put in the four-inch pipe as well.”

Building the road up to be fully clear of a once-a-century flood would have cost $500,000, a “ridiculous amount … for that one event,” said Armstrong, who described the cost-sharing arrangement with Sevita as “a good compromise.”

Meanwhile, Foster says there are other good ideas on how municipalities can help smooth the arrival of better Internet in rural communities, pointing to this recent document released by the Rural Ontario Municipal Association.

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