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RipNet CEO Kingsley Grant (right) and CFO Eric Rothschild stand next to one of the company's wireless tower near Brockville, Ont. (DAVE CHAN/DAVE CHAN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
RipNet CEO Kingsley Grant (right) and CFO Eric Rothschild stand next to one of the company's wireless tower near Brockville, Ont. (DAVE CHAN/DAVE CHAN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Rural Canada loses as politics and business fail to get broadband down the last mile Add to ...

Bouncing his pickup truck down a dusty rural road in Leeds and Grenville County, Ont., Kingsley Grant, a crossbow-hunter and president of a rural Internet provider, is pointing to rectangular antennas attached to the sides of farm silos and country houses.

"That's us - up on the side of that barn, there," he says, pointing to an antenna as he drives on a road about 45 minutes north of Brockville, Ont., where Mr. Grant's company of 27 employees, RipNet, is headquartered.

A few seconds later, he points to an antenna on the other side of the road, one installed by a rival service provider, Barrett Xplore, a national company based in New Brunswick. "There, that's the competition," he says.

Both are dwarfed by a Rogers Communications cellular tower soaring into the sky - another private-sector competitor. And, even though RipNet and Barrett Xplore received government grants to bring wireless Internet to rural communities, construction is beginning on an advanced fibre-optic network funded by the federal and provincial governments. It will blanket 50,000 square kilometres of eastern Ontario, including RipNet's turf, with a superfast network that local politicians insisted was necessary to help their rural communities thrive in a digital age.

Eric Rothschild, Mr. Grant's business partner, says they have no idea whether RipNet will be able to plug into the new, subsidized network or have to compete against it. Their confusion is typical of Canada's disconnected Internet infrastructure policies.

Governments around the world are spending billions and setting ambitious targets for Internet access and quality. But in Canada, there is a huge disparity in terms of where and how money is spent to expand high-speed access, and by whom. Even the presence - or not - of local community leaders lobbying for change can make the difference between a fully funded network or antiquated dial-up for residents of remote communities. Meanwhile, the fact that many people have Internet access available but don't connect to it hints at additional barriers of poverty and digital illiteracy.

By some estimates, about 700,000 homes in Canada lack broadband Internet access, and many Canadians who do connect to the Internet do so at speeds slower than 1.5 megabits per second - barely faster than dial-up, which can take an hour to download an average music album. It's too slow to stream videos online, and certainly far too slow for future applications such as telemedicine, where diagnoses and checkups can be done through high-definition, real-time video connections. By comparison, the U.S. government's "National Broadband Plan" sets a target speed of "affordable" 100 megabits-per-second Internet service connecting at least 100 million homes by 2020.

With no definitive national strategy - or firm consensus on whether Internet access is a fundamental right for all Canadians - businesses can't plan for the future and communities are left without secure connections to the outside world. Residents risk losing employment and business opportunities, and even future essential government services such as distance learning.

Jim Pine, chief administrative officer of Hastings County in Ontario, decided he was sick of watching rural communities wither and die. Five years ago, the resident of Belleville, Ont., began searching for ways small communities in the region could tap into the knowledge economy.

"The key link that was missing was being able to connect to the Internet with speeds and capacity that were affordable," he says. "We were losing jobs."

Mr. Pine and other politicians, representing an area about the size of Nova Scotia, hired consultants and started pressing governments to fund their dream: A fibre-optic network "backbone" that would allow Internet providers to serve residents with high-quality broadband Internet.

The group, known as the Eastern Ontario Wardens' Caucus, persuaded the federal and Ontario governments to each kick in $55-million, while private sector companies added $50-million and municipal governments tossed in $10-million. Construction has begun, and the group has set up a company to evaluate bids from providers who will plug in and distribute high-quality Internet service.

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