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Feds to seek, fund rural broadband service providers

The federal government plans to start accepting applications this summer from private-sector firms interested in expanding rural Canada’s broadband access.

Speaking Thursday at Adstock, Que., about 30 km east of Thetford Mines, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the government has wrapped up a “comprehensive nationwide survey of broadband access” to find the regions with “the highest need.”

From the applications to be submitted by potential service providers starting this summer, the government said it will pick the successful applicants by December.

The “key criteria” for recipients will include who can provide the best coverage at the lowest cost, create jobs, deliver within a set timeframe, and ensure a “viable and sustainable business model for the future.”

The government will then fund up to 50 per cent of one-time costs for its chosen private-sector providers to deploy broadband infrastructure and services in the identified regions.

Said costs may include the purchase, adaptation or upgrade of equipment, hardware or software, long-term investments in network capacity (such as leases for satellite transponder capacity), network deployment and other costs directly related to extending broadband infrastructure, the government said.

The funding is part of the government’s budget pledge of $225 million over three years to extend and improve broadband coverage, bringing access to “as many remaining unserved and underserved Canadian households as possible.”

The government’s new Broadband Canada: Connecting Rural Canadians program is focused on connecting households. Because a community has broadband access “does not always indicate the service is available to individual households,” the government noted.

According to the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), at the end of 2007, 93 per cent of Canadian households had access to broadband, but that number hides a “significant gap,” the government said.

Specifically, just 81 per cent of rural households have broadband access, compared to virtually all households in urban areas. All households are within the range of satellite service, but existing satellite capacity can provide service to only one per cent of households, the government said.

“Potential benefits”

The federal broadband strategy calls for participating providers to provide service of at least 1.5 Mbps to currently underserved Canadian households and businesses.

At 1.5 Mbps, the government said, a user can make a voice call over the internet, download an audio CD in seven minutes, experience video-quality streaming or videoconferencing and, compared to service at slower speeds, use multiple applications at the same time.

“The potential benefits of expanded broadband services are enormous, particularly for the thousands of Canadians who live in rural and remote communities,” Harper said Thursday in a release.

“The jobs of the future will increasingly depend on people in communities like Thetford Mines having consistent and reliable access to broadband services such as distance education, telehealth coverage and new online business opportunities. These are services that more and more Canadians rely on; they should also be services that all Canadians can count on.”

Eastern Ontario

In a separate announcement Thursday, the federal and Ontario governments pledged a total of $110 million for a $170 million project to expand broadband service into rural eastern Ontario.

Working with a non-profit group, the Eastern Ontario Warden’s Caucus (EOWC Inc.), which will put up $10 million, the governments plan to provide residential and business broadband service to eastern Ontario counties and communities including Hastings, Peterborough, Renfrew, Northumberland, Haliburton, Frontenac, Lanark, Prince Edward, Lennox and Addington, the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry, the United Counties of Prescott and Russell, the United Counties of Leeds and Grenville and the City of Kawartha Lakes.

EOWC Inc., the broadband project proponent, is an organization of mayors and wardens of counties and municipalities in the eastern Ontario region. The balance of the $170 million is to come from the private sector.

The province on Thursday also announced it has set up a Broadband Infrastructure Fund, which will provide the provincial share for the EOWC Inc. project. The infrastructure fund, totalling nearly $88 million, includes matching funds for the new federal program.

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