Competition fierce for broadband funding, Norfolk council learns

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A member of Norfolk council this week praised his colleagues for having the foresight to put $1 million of county money behind Rogers Communications’ bid to extend high-speed internet to under-serviced areas of the municipality.

Port Rowan Coun. Tom Masschaele, Norfolk’s representative to the South-Western Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT) initiative, noted on March 16 that the deadline for applying to the federal government’s Universal Broadband  Fund (UBF) had passed the previous day.

Masschaele has since been informed that Industry Canada has received 6,000 applications for a piece of the $1.75-billion fund. With interest this high, Masschaele said council was wise to pair Rogers’ application with a significant funding commitment of its own.

“There are over 6,000 municipalities that have internet-service providers that have applied to that fund,” Masschaele said. “I know the public has been critical, (but) with 6,000 applications, we’ve made ours stand out among others.

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“I believe this puts us in a more advantageous position. It was a very prudent position council took.”

If Rogers’ application in Norfolk is successful, more than 9,000 homes, farms and businesses in underserviced rural areas will have fibre-optic trunk-lines installed in their neighbourhoods.

Rogers has signalled its willingness to extend fibre-optic cable into homes and businesses if its application is approved. The potential value of this undertaking in Norfolk is in the range of $50 million.

When staff shared word of Rogers’ proposal with council in February, CAO Jason Burgess said applicants to the UBF program should think of doing something exceptional to distinguish their proposals from the raft of other proposals federal officials will have to sort through. A commitment of $1 million, Burgess said, demonstrates to Industry Canada that Norfolk is willing to offer more than moral support to move the municipality forward.

Turkey Point Coun. Chris VanPaassen agreed.

“I support this project 100 per cent,” VanPaassen told council on Feb. 9. “I don’t understand what the big discussion is about. I thought this was the kind of thing the fund was meant for. Luckily, we have money tucked away for it.

“I know that – when you go fishing – you have to put a little something on the hook to catch the big one.”

During this council’s first budget deliberation in 2019, council established a $1-million “council initiative” fund to pay for spot opportunities as they arise. Some in the community have since criticized council for setting up a contingency fund with no clearly defined purpose.

Council has since approved a detailed terms-of-reference. Members were glad the money was available when Rogers presented its proposal unexpectedly in early February.

Mayor Kristal Chopp noted in February that Norfolk’s commitment to Phase II of the SWIFT initiative will be in the range of $2.7 million. This, the mayor said, to service far fewer homes and businesses over a longer period of time than the Rogers proposal.

Applicants to the UBF will learn the status of their proposals later this year.

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