As Jack Kapica reports in the Globe and Mail (August 5, 2004), “two programs — Connect Ontario: Partnering for Smart Communities (COPSC) and Connect Ontario: Broadband Regional Access Program (COBRA)” have been cancelled. The programs, created in 2000, were “part of a five-year program to deliver high-speed Internet service and develop community portals in underserviced areas. The programs were meant to foster the spread of broadband to help businesses in smaller communities and remote areas enter the global economy, to give students access to on-line resources and courses, speed the exchange of data among hospitals and health care organizations, and offer people access to on-line government services.”
To some, this may seem trivial – it’s not like access to food or water or heat or electrical power or medical treatment. However, those of you who live in or near major urban centres may forget that a sizeable number of Ontario residents live in rural areas, some quite isolated, where access to many of the services urbanites take for granted is quite limited. This isn’t just a matter of faster email or faster access to online games: it’s a matter of access to health and health care information, government information, education resources, and eCommerce for small businesses as well.
The Globe and Mail also noted that “the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, which administered the programs, would not say whether funding will ever be reinstated under the current government.”
The lack of commitment is worrying to groups such as the Regional Networks of Ontario (RNO), a coalition that promotes broadband for small communities. Joan Bongard is an RNO regional director and head of HQNet, a non-profit organization promoting broadband in the Halton-Quinty region. These days, she says businesses considering a move to her region demand broadband service before they will locate in a community. Ms. Bongard says her area was one of 11 communities that received funding from the COPSC program, but she worries about other communities that have received none so far, or that had projects awaiting approval. “It’s been a long road getting to the point that government does see broadband as infrastructure,” she said.
Linda Rickard, an RNO member representing the Technology Alliance Group for Kawartha Lakes, says she lives in a “high-need area,” with huge discrepancies in the availability and reliability of broadband. She says that with so many business operations now tied to Internet-based programs and resources, companies and branch offices in the region desperately need reliable broadband. “A lot of people don’t know what smaller places have to cope with,” Ms. Rickard says. “The Internet is becoming an [essential piece of] infrastructure, like hydro.”