Monsef Gets an Update on U of G’s Efforts to Increase Rural Broadband

Maryam Monsef, Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Rural Economic Development, made a stop at the University of Guelph on Friday to hear from researchers on matters of agriculture and establishing better internet connectivity in rural areas. According to Monsef, the U of G might have a big role to play to as the Federal government is looking for places to make investments.

The media was invited to observe a round table discussion in the greenhouses of the Bovey Building at the U of G where Monsef and Guelph MP Lloyd Longfield discussed the university’s research into improving internet access in rural areas. Monsef and Longfield were joined by associate professor in regional economic development Ryan Gibson, professor in rural planning Wayne Caldwell, and GIS and operations manager at Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT) Matt Rapke.

“Lloyd [Longfield] does a really good job talking to the Prime Minister and the rest of cabinet about all the ways that Guelph has solutions for the rest of Canada,” Monsef said in an interview after her meetings.

The MP for Peterborough—Kawartha said that she understands the need to get faster internet to rural areas because part of her riding is rural-based. Monsef also said that having access to teams already working in the field lets her get up to speed on projects faster, which is good because Canadians are expecting quick action from the Federal government.

“It helps me absorb a lot of information about what works and what doesn’t in a very short period of time,” Monsef said. “That’s a good thing too because we’re in a minority Parliament, and there’s a lot of urgency on a lot of things, so the faster we build partnerships the more things we will get done for Canadians.”

In 2016, the Federal and Provincial governments invested $180 million in SWIFT’s proposed network, which would deliver high-speed internet to 300 rural communities in Ontario. The U of G has been an active participant in the project since 2011.

Last month, the Ontario government announced that they will be investing another $315 million to improve broadband, and expand cellular coverage, including $35 million for SWIFT to make broadband happen in Norfolk, Wellington and Lambton counties .

“Access to the internet is a great equalizer for everyone from farmers and business owners to students,” Barry Field, executive director of SWIFT, said to Farms.com. “With technology advancements, there’s lots of agricultural data that’s stored in a cloud or other manner. Without access to the Internet, how do you access that data or use it the way a farmer needs to?”

While the solutions to rural internet connectivity seem close, the U of G team is also thinking about the far north and other more remote areas of Canada where laying down fibre cable won’t necessarily do the job.

“In remote communities, especially Canada’s north, it’s likely that a fibre solution isn’t economically feasible for a lot of years,” Rapke told Monsef.

“There are a lot of emerging technologies, low Earth orbit satellites for example, that might shake up the way we think about broadband,” added Gibson, who said that 5G is another emerging technology will have to find its place in the national picture of internet delivery.

In terms of practicalities, Gibson added that the expansion of broadband is still dependent on local leadership. “From what we’ve seen, I think local community leadership is probably one of the biggest factors in [expansion],” he said. “If you have a local public official or a local concerned citizen who’s very passionate about this issue it seems to go quite a long way.”

That passion is needed because, according to Monsef, she has the directive from the prime minister to make it happen.

“The priorities that I have based on my mandate letter are those that Canadians are feeling the most urgency, and on the Rural Economic Development file it’s high speed internet access,” she said.

“Come this spring, we’re going to put out a call for proposals for communities to apply for money to get high speed internet and broadband access, and then we’re going to get back to them sometime later this year so that they can start planning and be ready for the next construction season,” Monsef explained.

Of course, the big news coming out of the University of Guelph lately has had nothing to do with research or innovation. The allegations against former track coach Dave Scott-Thomas have made national headlines, and Monsef said that she’s made acting on violence against women one of her ministerial priorities.

“Every survivor that comes forward, comes forward with a lot of courage, and with a lot of hope that by doing so they prevent it from happening to someone else, and I do want to thank every survivor that comes forward,”  Monsef said. “This isn’t an issue and a problem for one place, or one community, it’s broader and more complex than that.”

Monsef said that the Federal government is working to address systemic changes in the criminal justice system. “We’re also coming forward with Canada’s first framework to address and prevent gender-based violence on campuses,” she said. “This is significant, but it’s going to require partnerships with institutions like Guelph who are already moving forward so that we can accelerate the solutions that exist.”

“A case like [Scott-Thomas] comes forward, and every time that it does it’s not just an individual that is harmed, it’s families that are scared, and that pain spills over into communities,” Monsef added. “In that sadness and shock and grief, there’s also opportunity for conversations to accelerate the pace of action.”

You’ll be able to hear the full interview with Maryam Monsef on Thursday’s episode of Open Sources Guelph at 5 pm on CFRU 93.3 fm.

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