Eastern Ontario broadband developer left on standby
Tom Van Dusen
Nation Valley News
CHESTERVILLE — One of Eastern Ontario’s leading independent broadband installers is faulting a federal financing program for not moving quickly enough to take advantage of the 2021 build season underway for the past eight weeks.
“It’s the equivalent of providing crop subsidies in June after the planting season is over,” says Birket Foster, Chairman and CEO of Storm Internet, whose offices here overlook busy farming activities across the road.
The delay in delivering Universal Broadband Fund cash is threatening three Storm solo projects and a partnership for which his company has applied for support, Foster stated, all of them designed to connect homes in “digital deserts”, a stated priority of all levels of government.
The full UBF is worth $2.5 billion; the CRTC promised to dole out $150 million of that in a Rapid Response Stream by February of this year. Longer term, the federal and provincial governments have committed $7 billion for expansion of high-speed internet, with the federal level aiming to fully connect 98 per cent of Canadians by 2026.
So far, said Foster, whose company is celebrating 25 years in business, only $27.3 million of rapid response funding has been released and Storm missed the first cut. In a field of 576 applicants, Foster isn’t sure his company will ever be awarded, but he’d like to know one way or the other and plan accordingly.
Headquartered in Ottawa with offices in Chesterville and Perth, it’s not that Storm will be inactive this summer without the government funds. Having passed $10 million in sales for the first time this year, it’s currently conducting additional fibre installations in Clayton and Vars, with other work pending. During the COVID-19 downtime, Storm has installed 20 new nodes (transmission towers) across the region and upgraded 35 existing nodes.
Foster also heads Chesterville-based MB Foster Associates specializing in data migration and integration, which he launched while attending Carleton University 44 years ago (and today has four projects underway in the U.S.) Foster managed to bring high-speed internet to that firm’s rural headquarters back in 1999 already.
He went on to become an investor, shareholder and director in Storm just a few years later, in 2003. Employing 50 people — most of whom have been working out of their homes during C-19 leaving offices here close to deserted — Storm has 9,000 residential customers across the region and 1,000 commercial customers. That’s mainly because his firm is much quicker on its feet than internet behemoth Bell Canada, he said.
The pandemic has resulted in some losses for Storm, notably more than $250,000 in providing rural fairs and recurring concerts with temporary Wi-Fi service, events which were cancelled in 2020 and will likely suffer the same fate again this year. Storm has offered free-of-charge WiFi hookups if needed to Ottawa and Eastern Ontario Health Unit vaccine clinics.
Foster isn’t alone in demanding that senior governments speed up financial commitments for broadband improvements. The Eastern Ontario Regional Network, a group of close to 60 elected representatives, is calling for a $400 million investment in its $1.5 billion Gig Project providing download speeds of one gigabit to 95 per cent of the underserved region.
Officials such as Russell Township Mayor Pierre Leroux emphasize that, while 15 years ago internet may not have been an essential service, now it’s as important as hydro and gas.
Leroux, Foster and other rural leaders maintain the pandemic has highlighted the urban-rural internet divide, with shortchanged rural residents increasingly engaging in e-commerce, working, receiving health care, and attending school virtually. Acceptable capacity doesn’t exist and Foster suggested it’s only a matter of time before a rural rights group petitions the courts for the same internet access as urban residents.
North Grenville Mayor Nancy Peckford agrees the pandemic has made broadband challenges “all the more urgent,” especially with multiple users in the same household requiring a stable high-speed connection.
North Grenville has retained Storm in partnership with CIP CommTech Inc. to deliver a market demand and supply study within the municipality historically underserved and how to bridge the gaps. The resulting report identifies coverage gaps and makes recommendations how to address them, including funding sources. The study builds on a survey launched in 2020 which revealed that parts of North Grenville often experience one-fifth the speed of more urban areas.