Northern Ontario: a digital dead end?

Author:Cirtwill, Charles
Position::Think Tank

Sometimes I find myself thinking of a map of Northern Ontario and seeing this huge foot coming down out of the sky crushing everything beneath it while the words "now for something completely different" boom across the heavens. For those of you not familiar with Monty Python's Flying Circus, I would encourage a few minutes on Google just to get a feel for the context. That assumes, of course, that you have reliable internet and can access Google. In Ontario's North, that isn't necessarily a sure thing.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has a very nice map online showing "broadband internet service coverage in Canada in 2014." It has all sorts of colours on it--purple for cable, blue for fibre, green for fixed wireless, and yellow for LTE or "fourth generation" cellular technology. Virtually all of Northern Ontario is white--as in no service at all. Of course, large swaths of Northern Ontario are also sparsely populated. That said, even in Northern urban hubs the predominant colour is green with lots of purple to be found. And don't get me started about smaller population centres or the lack of cell coverage 15 minutes outside any major community.

Which brings me back to that heavenly foot "rebooting" (as it were) the Northern economy. If we are serious about securing a sustainable future for Ontario's Northern regions in the modern digital age, then it is, literally, time for something completely different. Even traditional industries like mining and forestry are becoming more and more information technology-dependent. If remote machinery, digital mapping, electronic claim filing or just your smartphone (or even your 20-year-old flip phone) don't work, then the mill isn't going to reopen and the mine won't be generating royalties.

Digital entrepreneurs are making millions from small hamlets around the globe, except for those in Ontario's North. Want to run a digital startup? In most cases you better head south first. It's the same with medical advice, even diagnostics. Much of it can now be delivered via smartphone. But you would be hard-pressed to find world leaders in online education, health care, licensing, permitting, or approvals here in Northern Ontario. We tinker, occasionally we compete, but rarely do we lead.

Why is...

To continue reading