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ICT Partnerships to Connect Northern Ontario Businesses to Global Opportunities

ICT Partnerships to Connect Northern Ontario Businesses to Global Opportunities

Originally posted on October 15, 2020: http://fednor.gc.ca/eic/site/fednor-fednor.nsf/eng/fn04596.html

Relationships with Private Sector are Key

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Blue Sky‘s Project Manager Jeff Buell visits an Internet Service Provider to talk about expansion.Susan Church, Executive Director Blue Sky Economic Growth Corporation

Northern Ontario’s Information and Communication Technology Networks (ICTNs) recognize that access to technology is crucial to the economic and cultural success of Northern Ontario. Blue Sky Net, NEOnet and Parry Sound Muskoka Community Network with FedNor support have been working tirelessly for nearly 20 years to connect northern communities to the rest of the world. In 2012, the addition of other ICTNs – the Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre and the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre – effectively ensured that there was an ICTN advocate for every region of Northern Ontario.

“Collectively, we are the catalyst for change,” states Susan Church, Executive Director, Blue Sky Economic Growth Corporation. “We recognize that Northern Ontario is unique. While there are organizations in southern and eastern Ontario that are doing the same kind of work that we do, the fact that the five of us are collaborating to address the geographic challenges of the North—whereas individually we couldn’t—is what sets us apart and is helping to move the yardstick.”

Church points to the Broadband and Associated Infrastructure Mapping Analysis Project as a prime example. Blue Sky Net, in partnership with FedNor and area Internet Service Providers (ISPs), created a geographical information system framework that provides a spatial view of broadband coverage across Northern Ontario, identifying where the Internet is accessible and at what speed. The information is available through the Connected North website.

“It’s a wonderful tool and a source of pride for us,” affirms Church. “Governments use it when developing applications for funding for better broadband because they can easily demonstrate the need for service in a specific region. The mapped data is also helping small ISPs establish business cases to carve out niches for themselves in our market.  And last but not least, it assists economic development organizations in attracting investment because potential investors can ascertain whether a parcel of land is serviced.”

In Northern Ontario, only 65 percent of all property has access to a data transfer speed of greater than 5 megabits per second (Mbps), the provincial standard established in 2015. If the five major urban centres – Sudbury, North Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins and Thunder Bay – were removed from that equation, that number would drop to 56 percent. What is disconcerting to Church is the approximately 15 percent of property in Northern Ontario that has speeds of less than 5 Mbps; one-fifth of which has no service at all.

Church says the ICT networks’ focus is building on broadband infrastructure to address gaps in high-speed Internet connectivity and cellular coverage. They accomplish this by working with stakeholders and by forming partnerships with government and the private sector to access crucial funds. For example, the Northern Ontario Backhaul and Fixed Wireless Project, a $6 million initiative, is focused on upgrades to 30 sites across Northwestern Ontario.

Workshop hosted by Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre

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Computer Science students from St. Mary’s College in Sault Ste. Marie learn about the many career options and exciting work available in the computer science field at a session organized by the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre. Photo credit: Jerret Semczyszyn, Marketing and Communications Coordinator, Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre

“This project, which started a few years ago, is to deliver 25 Mbps as we looked beyond the mandate in effect at the time,” explains Jeff Coull, Director of ICT, Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre. “We received funding in June 2018 and have completed 25 sites already, 4 are under construction and 1 is in the project planning phase.”

Education is another important aspect of what the ICTNs do. A portion of the Connected North website is dedicated to helping people make sense of technology jargon. By simply filling in their address, homeowners and business operators can identify the various types of services available in their specific region and understand what they mean.

A second example is TechEdge Algoma, a community-based program that is bridging the gap between education, training and industry needs. Led by the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre, it’s a partnership involving the district school boards and post-secondary institutions.

“Through this partnership, the first of its kind in the Algoma region, educational institutions are and will be enhancing their existing ICT curriculum, injecting it with work placement, to ensure students are “Job Ready” with both proper technical and soft skills, identified by local employers,” shares Susan George, ICT Sector Lead, Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre.”

The networks have also helped businesses, such as Wipware in North Bay, through its Broadband E-commerce and Marketing program. The innovative software and systems technology company distributes its products worldwide. President Tom Palangio says his company accessed the program to update and revamp its website.

“We wanted a website that we could maintain and update ourselves,” explains Palangio. “The team at Blue Sky Net was incredibly helpful. Now we can refresh our site and post newsworthy items in multiple languages for our clients around the world whenever we want. In addition, we have the capability to monitor our website traffic to gauge the effectiveness of promotions, marketing campaigns and attendance at key trade shows.”

Church says Blue Sky Net and the other Northern Ontario ICTNs have helped thousands of businesses whether it be with their website or innovative technology to grow their business.  She says she’s happy that businesses have the opportunity to use some of the technologies that are taken for granted elsewhere.

“We are moving the yardstick, but it is so difficult,” states Church. “I guess if it were easy, we would have already done it. It’s a passionate, frustrating job. People want the same essential services that are afforded to those who live in large urban centres. We’re trying to even the playing field but our geography, sparse population and limited infrastructure make it very expensive.”

The ICTN activities are examples of the types of initiatives funded by FedNor that support of the federal Prosperity and Growth Strategy for Northern Ontario. Learn more about PGSNO.

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