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The north faces many challenges to upgrade internet, cellular service

NEOnet has strived to upgrade services in region since 1999

If you’ve noticed improvements in internet or cell phone service since 1999, chances are you can thank the efforts of NEOnet. For 20 years, NEOnet has been the champion of improving information and communication technology in Northeastern Ontario.

While many improvements have been made, NEOnet — the North Eastern Ontario Communications Network Inc. — still has plenty to do to bring service in the region up to par. This is not only important in the home, but key for business and industry.

“We came to be to address the challenges of the north where there was little to no cellular communications, and if we had internet, for the most part it was dialup,” said Paul Ouimette, director of operations for NEOnet. “Out of the gate our mandate was to try and create public-private partnerships to deploy some degree of internet for Northern Ontario and, where possible, entice the same thing for mobile communications, for cellular phones.

“It became a lifeline on some major roads to be a connection port, with a lot of transports on our highways and a lot of people moving around. And internet was to go from the dialup to DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) … and in some cases distill some smaller companies to provide a pocket service where we could do some proprietary wireless to address a localized need in our region.”

The service area for NEOnet is massive.

“NEOnet is responsible for about 200,000 square kilometres,” he said. “Of course, we’re located in Timmins, but we don’t stop at the boundaries of greater Timmins. We go along Highway 11 to Hearst and Constance Lake First Nations … we go to Temiskaming Shores, Temagami. We go up to the James Bay Coast, Moosonee and Moose Factory, westbound up to Peawanuk. And in our area, Highway 101 west we go to Foleyet, and on Highway 144 we go to Gogama.

“It’s a big chunk and the challenge is we have little pockets of people in small communities and municipalities. In communities that are larger, it was easy enough several years ago to get someone to come in and do internet, because it was profitable. We’re now faced today with unserved that remains and underserved.”

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has mandated upgrades nationwide. It has happened quickly down south, but much slower in the North.

“So, if you think of Timmins as an example, underserved would be our rural routes, think of Mahoney Road as an example,” Ouimette said. “They may have DSL from NorthernTel, but that’s far from being the speeds that the CRTC mandated that every resident or every dwelling in Canada should achieve 50 megabits per second download and 10 megabits per second upload.

“They’ve done it in two phases. They’ve said by 2021, 90 per cent of our population will have that access. And by the year 2030, everybody — coast to coast to coast — will have the same. The challenge is, which is in favour of the private ISPs (Internet Service Providers), that 90 per cent of our populations lives along the border with the USA. Those are (communities of) tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands in population. That’s Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Mississauga — all of those bigger communities. So, they are probably already approaching 90 per cent.

“I’m afraid that in the north, the (companies) that provide the infrastructure, they’re going to wait until the last bloody minute, because there is no extra money in it for them, to invest more dollars to improve their infrastructure.”

Improving infrastructure is vital to the north.

“One of the biggest challenges in my mind is that DSL is very prevalent in the north, because it is just over traditional telephone copper lines,” he said. “It doesn’t meet the target speeds of the CRTC."

While improved cellular service helps, it is too costly to be the main source.

“Can you imagine a home that does streaming of entertainment, kids playing games on their consuls and whatnot, plus the real life with smart phones and tablets when it comes to social media, doing homework and downloading a whole bunch of larger files, that is a challenge. Right now, we’re not sure how we’re going to be able to bridge that gap between now and the year 2030," he said.

“The government is making monies available, but we spoke to some internet service providers and they said even if you provide us with 100 per cent funding for the infrastructure, the operating costs of that infrastructure are still not being covered by potential new subscribers when we deliver these services. So that’s a big gap.”

Industry requires upgraded communications to survive. Equipment is becoming more and more reliant on downloads. Some smaller industries can’t make the improvements they want because the internet is too slow to handle the feed.

Businesses face the same problems.

“Ivanhoe, in the summer, is quite popular and the infrastructure equipment in that area, there are so many registered cell phones, that the ability to download data goes to a crawl to a point where nothing works,” he said. “It’s affecting business. We have outfitters there, tourist companies, they would love to sell fishing permits, they would love to sell hunting permits, and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has changed the model so that it must be done digitally, you can’t hand write them any more in your store. If you can’t connect to the internet, how can you sell this?"

Service challenges also put limits on students.

“The Ontario government has talked about how it wants to have two or sometimes four online courses for everybody at the secondary level,” Ouimette said. “If you’re in a community where the internet is not very good at home, how would that work? Who would have the responsibility to ensure you have access to something that’s reasonable? Or do you say the kids have to stay later at school to use the school’s infrastructure or the library’s infrastructure. Those are not perfect solutions.”

There have been many success stories thanks to NEOnet.

“We’ve also helped with our hospitals. We were part of the founding network that connected all of our hospitals,” he said. “We were also part of implementing 3G towards Foleyet and on Highway 144 towards Sudbury. Those were lifelines. NEOnet is proud to have had the opportunity to work with our private partners.”

NEOnet will continue to encourage improvements for business, industry and residents.

“We’re grateful for what’s been able to be built over the last 20 years, but there’s a lot of work going forward,” Ouimette said. “We don’t want to reach to the year 2030 and say, did we reach that deadline? What’s the plan for us?

“We’re hoping that in communicating with the municipalities, the province and the federal government and agencies, we can try to make sure everyone is aware of what is possible, how much money some of this will take, and raise our hands to say we’re not going to be idle on the sidelines, waiting for the internet service providers to decide where they want to improve their technology based on where’s the most profitable. But to say how do we demonstrate for us it’s valuable today for our entertainment, our connectivity and for our next generation.”

NEOnet is located on the Timmins campus of Northern College. For more information, visit