September 28, 2011

Rural internet project neglects parts of Erin

As published in The Erin Advocate

A Wellington County project to improve rural internet service, with a $1 million boost from the Ontario government, is having a limited impact in Erin because most of the town was considered to be already well-serviced.

Many Erin residents, especially in the north, would disagree with that assessment, but the good news is that wireless and satellite capacity is expanding quickly, so good quality internet could soon be available to everyone at a reasonable price.

The Rural Connections Broadband Program was started in 2009, one of 47 initiatives in the province to bring high-speed web access to under-serviced rural areas. The idea was to partner with a private firm that would build a series of towers, beaming a wireless internet signal to receivers at people's homes.

Residents in urban areas like Hillsburgh and Erin village can choose to receive high-speed service via TV cable or phone line, but in many rural areas, the only options are slow-speed dial-up, a satellite link or a wireless tower that requires a direct line-of-sight transmission.

Initially, the County planned to partner with Everus Communications, but the process was delayed when Everus went out of business. In 2010, Barrett Xplore Inc. (BXI) purchased some of the Everus equipment and customer base, and was chosen to proceed with the $3 million project. BXI, which operates with the brand name Xplorenet, is investing $2 million and will receive $1 million from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs when the work is complete.

There are now 14 towers set up as part of the project, with three more being finished this month and the last one in October. Only one of the new towers is in Erin, located at Ospringe, providing improved service to rural residents in the west part of the town. Other parts of rural Erin did not qualify.

"Areas of the County that previously had at least 75% high-speed internet coverage were not eligible for funding," says the website. "Those areas will not be receiving additional coverage as part of this project."

The Town of Erin has been involved in the process and did make it clear to the County that there is a need for better service in various areas. Councillor Jose Wintersinger was on the committee, and both former Mayor Rod Finnie and current Mayor Lou Maieron have both been vocal proponents of improvements. They've received many complaints about lack of quality internet, even though it is not a municipal responsibility.

A public information meeting was held by the County at 6:30 pm on Tuesday last week at Centre 2000, but it was not advertised in The Advocate. Nine residents were there, including four politicians and one columnist, to see a presentation by Don Ticknor, a Sales Manager for Xplornet. (It's a good thing there wasn't a large crowd, since the projector wouldn't work, so we had to huddle around a laptop.)

County Councillor Ken Chapman said he was shocked to see that north-east Erin was not mapped as an area qualifying for improvement. For this project, Xplorenet could only build upgrades where the County directed them.

"The gaps still exist," said Maieron, and he urged Xplornet to consider parts of Erin for future expansion (after this project), since there is a relatively high density of rural residents, including hundreds of people who need high-speed internet to operate businesses from their homes.

Kirk McElwain, a councillor from Elora who chaired the Wellington broadband committee, said they surveyed service providers to check existing coverage, since the County was not supposed to be funding one company in a competitive market area.

Although he had some doubts about the extent of the coverage, he said, "We took their word for it". He said that while service may not have been great in some parts of Erin, it was better than areas like Puslinch where there had been none at all.

Ticknor said it generally takes about 400 newly-connected households to make installation of a tower economically viable. His firm is involved with 31 government-assisted projects.

"We are Canada's largest rural high-speed provider, and are doing our best to provide the service. Our new 4G technology provides robust, reliable service that is interference-free and can be continuously upgraded."

Some parts of rural south Erin get wireless service from Hummingbird Wireless of Halton Hills. Others are customers of Firefly Networks, which in August merged with Standard Broadband (Data Matters Inc.) of Milton. They transmit from a series of towers in south Erin and the Ospringe area, and are currently upgrading to higher-capacity technology.

Figuring out just how many households were getting good service is complicated. People can receive a wireless signal either through an outdoor receiver or through plug-in equipment on their computers such as the Rogers Rocket Stick. Signals can be blocked or degraded, however, by trees – a constantly "growing" problem – or hilly terrain. Satellite transmission eliminates that issue, but has traditionally been much more expensive.

Ticknor said that by the end of this year, new satellite capacity will allow his firm to offer a 4G satellite signal at the same price levels as a tower signal – plus an extra equipment rental cost of $10 per month. Installation costs are also extra. Call their Arthur-based dealer, Northwind, at 519-957-2438 and go to or for more details.

The effort to bring better internet service to the County was coordinated by the Waterloo Wellington Community Futures Development Corporation (WWCFDC), a federally funded non-profit agency that promotes economic development. As part of the broadband program, they are hosting three free workshops for small businesses.

On October 12, from 9 am to 4 pm, at the WWCFDC office in Elora: Social Media Basics – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIN and YouTube. On October 19, from 9 am to 1:30 pm, at the WWCFDC office in Elora: Is Your Website Making the Grade? Maximizing web tools to promote, manage and grow your business. And on November 9, a repeat of the Social Media program, at the Mount Forest Community Centre. Call 519-846-9839 ext. 227 or go to