Originally published by Kingston Whig-Standard
Author: Luke Hendry
Proposed improvements to mobile telephone and data service are still in the negotiation stage, with Eastern Ontario Regional Network officials waiting for provincial and federal approvals.
When completed — possibly within the next several years — the network’s expansion of telecommunications infrastructure is expected to ensure there will be virtually no gaps in mobile telephone and internet service in the region. As little as one per cent of the region may remain uncovered, staff say.
It’s also expected to increase capacity for those connections, allowing users to transfer data more quickly, whether they’re sending large files or simply surfing online.
The network’s communications and stakeholder relations officer, Lisa Severson, said it should improve service for everyone, not just those currently lacking coverage.
“We’re hoping everyone has a much better experience,” she said.
Making it happen, however, takes years of studies, meetings, and logistics — and an estimated $299 million, likely from all levels of government plus telecommunications companies.
“We are working hard to make that project get to an approval stage,” said Jim Pine, Hastings County’s chief administrative officer and the current leader of the EORN.
Provincial and federal officials in May received the group’s business plan, which Pine called “comprehensive.”
The EORN team met last week in Toronto with Ontario Infrastructure Minister Bob Chiarelli.
Severson said the meeting was scheduled so that the team could emphasize “the importance of the project for eastern Ontario.”
She said the minister has asked his staff to work more closely with the group.
It can take months for government approval, Pine said, “but we certainly aren’t getting turned away, which is great news.”
In the meantime, he continued, discussions between the higher levels of government are unfolding.
“Ontario and Canada are still negotiating their long-term infrastructure agreement “¦ I’m sure some of that funding will come out of those pots of money.”
The network has also collected about 100 letters from people eager to see the project succeed, said Pine.
Telecommunications providers have yet to come aboard but Pine said those talks are also ongoing. Those companies will need to do their own analyses, he said, though they’ve been provided with the EORN data.
“They have the technologies and the skills but we’ll also be asking them to invest in it,” said Pine.
Industry partnerships were also critical to the first the EORN project, which improved rural broadband Internet service. There are now at least 120,000 customers on the resulting network.
“We raised $63 million in private money investment into the first broadband project,” Pine said.
Severson said network staff have created conceptual maps for the project but it’s not yet known where the required telecommunications towers would be build or which existing ones could be upgraded.
“Until we go out for a formal request for proposals with the private sector, we won’t know where their plans are to put towers.”
She said EORN must first secure funding before requesting such information from service providers. Those companies would then need several months to develop engineering plans, Severson said.
Residents across eastern Ontario have offered their properties as tower sites, she added.
Yet tower locations can be controversial: some projects are opposed by residents who find them unsightly or are concerned about health effects. Health Canada’s website notes towers and mobile phones must meet its standards for limiting human exposure to radio-frequency energy.
“There are a small number of epidemiology studies that have shown brain cancer rates may be elevated in long-term/heavy cellphone users,” the site reads. “Other epidemiology studies on cellphone users, laboratory studies and animal cancer studies have not supported this association.”
Despite differing results of studies into a “possible” link between such energy and cancer in humans, the link is “far from conclusive,” the site continues. It adds Health Canada, the World Health Organization and the International Agency for Research on Cancer agree more research is needed.
Severson said gaps in service can’t be closed without towers.
“We’ll be there, of course, to support both the municipalities as well as the private sector with helping to educate residents about towers, etc. But without those towers, there won’t be coverage.
“We would work with the carriers if there’s opposition and they don’t receive land-use authority from the local municipality.”
Industry Canada will make the final ruling on locations, she said.
Towers can, to a degree, be camouflaged. In Algonquin Provincial Park, for example, towers built along the Highway 60 corridor between Whitney and Dwight look like the area’s large coniferous trees.
Severson said disguising towers can nearly double the construction cost, but it may be an option in certain cases.
“We couldn’t do every tower in eastern Ontario that way because we wouldn’t be able to afford it.
“We’re willing to work with the communities and the providers to make this thing work as well as it can.”
Parts of Canada, especially rural areas, remain far behind cities in mobile service and capacity.
Areas without sufficient service stand to be at an even greater disadvantage when the next wave of technology, known as fifth-generation or 5G, arrives in Ontario as early as 2020.
It’s expected to increase speeds by 100 times and capacity by 1,000 compared to current systems.
“You have to have a robust 4G network to be able to evolve to that 5G and “¦ in eastern Ontario, some places run on a 3G network,” said Severson.
Severson said it had been hoped the EORN project’s earliest infrastructure would be built in 2019 but that’s at the mercy of approvals.
She said local politicians at all levels remain supportive of the EORN’s proposal, though residents can help by writing letters of support to their politicians or to the EORN at [email protected]