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FEATURE Oshawa’s rural residents face a technology divide

The expansion of the 407 into Oshawa in 2016 has brought the booming developing closer to the doorstep of the city’s rural communities.

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

To the untrained eye, it may appear that all things Oshawa end to the north at the intersection of Simcoe Street North and Conlin Road.

In more recent years, that marking spot could be moved up to the 407, which now winds its way through the city’s north.

The fact of the matter is the city’s boundaries stretch much further, past the smaller communities of Columbus and Raglan, up Simcoe North Street to Coates Road.

While the quiet farmland and wooded areas of these locales are a stark contrast to the city’s concrete-dominated downtown and quickly sprawling neighbourhoods near UOIT and Durham College, the inhabitants share the namesake of City of Oshawa residents.

The city’s relationship with these smaller communities has been somewhat contentious in the past.

As recent as a decade ago, there was a concentrated effort by residents of Columbus to part ways with the City of Oshawa and join the Town of Whitby.

Residents placed signs reading “Oshawa Please Release Us” in hopes of getting out of what some called a forced marriage when the Region of Durham was created in 1974.

A notable proponent of the split was current Ward 1 city councillor Rosemary McConkey.

The Columbus Planning Area as mapped out by the City of Oshawa. (Photo courtesy of the City of Oshawa)

Fast forward to 2019.

While the succession movement has died off, residents in Oshawa’s rural areas are now facing a whole slew of unique difficulties from their more urban neighbours.

In the city centre of Oshawa, residents are able to access relatively competitive internet speeds.

While not as fast as Toronto’s, it’s pretty close, and several companies are moving to bring even faster internet to the city.

In May 2018, Bell Canada announced plans to invest more than $100 million to bring its pre-eminent technology to the city.

This means Bell plans to bring its all-fibre network to approximately 60,000 homes and businesses located throughout Oshawa.

Bell claims their all-fibre network will provide internet speeds of up to 1 gigabit (GB) per second, both for downloads and uploads, with the capability to ultimately deliver speeds of 40 GB per second and more in the future.

At the time, a company official said, currently, the highest internet speeds available through Bell in Oshawa is 100 MB/second, but most customers have speeds of 25 MB/second.

telMAX is another company with plans of expanding access to fibre-optic networks in Oshawa.

Fredrik Alatalo, chief administrative officer for telMAX, told The Oshawa Express last year they currently already offer Internet, television, phone and IT services for customers who are looking to switch from other companies.

“We are hoping to help those customers with high bills,” he remarked. “It’s significant that we can actually connect customers.”

On top of existing services, Alatalo says the company continues to expand and plans to install another 100 km of fibre-optic cable in the area, with speeds of up to one GB higher per second and higher speeds down the line.

And while urban customers may be salivating at the thought of even faster internet speeds, the topic of technology is causing nightmares for others.

Columbus, boosted by the expansion of the 407 just minutes away, is beginning to see its own unique boom in development.

In 2017, The Columbus Builders Group, a group of approximately seven different developers representing approximately 60 per cent of the land within the Columbus planning area, approached the city with an arrangement that would see the group fund studies needed to move the planning process forward.

As Ward 1 regional councillor John Neal noted at a recent committee meeting, Columbus residents have development coming “up to their doorsteps.”

But the long-time councillor has repeatedly stated when it comes to internet services, rural Oshawa residents are in the dark ages.

Some Columbus residents have to use satellite internet, citing high prices and questionable results. (Wikipedia photo)

And they are reaching out to the city for help.

According to a letter sent to the city’s development services committee last October by a Columbus resident, they “are forced to obtain satellite internet which is costing us hundreds of dollars a month only to provide inconsistent services and limited accessibility.”

The resident said this is causing a “financial burden” on residents, while also creating security concerns for those with home alarm systems that require a stable internet connection.

It was these types of issues which led the city to develop plans for a broadband strategy to address gaps in rural and industrial areas.

As part of the strategy, the following broadband speed targets have been set;

– For small businesses, the targets are download and upload speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) by 2022, 500 Mbps by 2028 and 1 Gbps by 2034

– For medium/large businesses, institutional, government and post-secondary institutions, the targets are 1 Gbps by 2022, 10 Gbps by 2034, and 50 Gbps by 2038.

– For residential services, the targets are 50 Mbps (download)/10 Mbps (upload) by 2022, 100 Mbps (download)/25 Mbps (upload) by 2034, and 150 Mbps (download)/50 Mbps (uploaded) by 2038.

But city staff warn faster internet in rural areas such as Columbus won’t happen overnight.

The onus is on the private sector to bring services to the area, and it may not be a worthwhile investment – for now.

“While the private sector is stepping forward to improve broadband connectivity and internet services, there are gaps within the community that they will not address. Put simply, the private sector will only invest in new technology and infrastructure where they can make an expected return on their investment,” warned a staff report regarding the city’s broadband strategy.

The problem is not only on the city’s radar.

Durham Region is in the midst of completing its own broadband strategy, as the region’s rural areas have some of the slowest internet speeds in the GTA.

The region could take on a number of roles in strengthening the broadband network in its communities.

An example of a municipal broadband network is the Eastern Ontario Regional Network, an initiative started in 2010 involving partnerships with all levels of government and the private sector to service homes and businesses in Eastern Ontario.

This network has brought high-speed Internet to at least 95 per cent of the homes and businesses in the area, covering a span of 5,500 kms.

While this strategy has yet to be completed, it appears Oshawa council is not willing to wait.

At a recent meeting, McConkey brought forth a successful motion requesting Durham to include broadband internet infrastructure within a major construction project in the Simcoe Street North and Winchester Road corridor.

“The residents north of the 407 are paying astronomical prices for lackluster internet services,” she said.

Both UOIT and Durham College have gobbled up lands north of Conlin Road with the intent of expanding operations northbound, which means even more student housing in the area.

Ward 4 regional councillor Rick Kerr pointed out these students, many who are coming from communities with high-speed internet, will be expecting the same type of service when they arrive in Oshawa.

It remains unclear if council’s request to the region will be accepted.

For now, it appears residents of rural Oshawa will remain behind the curve in reaping the benefits of a technology that expands by leaps and bounds on a yearly, monthly, weekly and even daily basis.

 

BEHIND THE WRITING

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

When covering city council, you get to see a lot of storylines play out.

I’ve witnessed the current situation of the Harbour Road extension between the City of Oshawa and Oshawa Port Authority take its many twists and turns.

Over the last six months, I’ve been there through plenty of discussions on fire safety, and the role the local union should play in planning for the future.

In a way, it almost allows you to become part of the story, and you want to see an ending that is satisfying for all parties involved.

The issue of substandard Internet services in Oshawa’s rural areas is one I’ve followed on both a city and regional level.

Last year, regional staff made a presentation on Durham’s broadband strategy, which is still in development.

Living less than an hour away from Toronto, I am able to enjoy relatively fast Internet speeds.

I can download a movie in a few minutes, and traverse through various browser windows at the same time.

But up Simcoe Street North, as you escape the urban centre of Oshawa, the city takes on a different form.

Strip malls and the sprawling new townhouses are replaced by farmland and quaint country houses.

But there is another change.

North of the 407 extension, technology seems to take a dip in quality.

Residents of the hamlet of Columbus are facing huge gaps in the quality of their Internet service.

A few years ago, the CRTC deemed access to broadband internet as a “basic service of life.”

To some, this may sound absurd, but for residents and business owners in the GTA, it is the reality.

But the big question is what can be done?

These rural areas are still sparsely populated for now, and it may not really make sense for Internet service providers to invest in infrastructure if they cannot make a return on that investment.

It may be up to the city and the region to find a way to solve this problem.

A recent request by Oshawa council to include broadband infrastructure in the Winchester-Simcoe construction project makes a lot of sense to bring some relief to our rural neighbours to the north.

 

 

 

 

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