ORION’s Rural Remote Advisory Group: Working to close the digital divide

A double image of Downtown Toronto and Algonquin park

Tackling Canada’s national connectivity gap

Access to broadband has long been a global issue, disproportionately felt by those in rural and remote regions. According to data from Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Canada and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in 2018, only 41% of rural households have access to 50/10 Mbps, compared with 98% of urban homes. Additionally, only 31% of households in Indigenous communities have access to 50/10 Mbps. Canada faces a national connectivity gap and rural and remote communities have identified access to affordable, high-speed connectivity as a challenge impeding their economic growth. Awareness of this inequity has been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic as the transition to online delivery for remote teaching, learning, healthcare and other essential services has demanded greater attention to the digital divide.

Our logo for the Northern Connection report showing a map of OntarioWhen it comes to the national connectivity gap, Ontario is no exception. As part of our mandate to support research, education and innovation across Ontario, ORION is committed to improving access to connectivity within these sectors, which all play integral roles in our economy. In 2018, ORION released the report, “Connecting Northern Ontario’s Research and Education Community”, co-funded by the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation. The report outlined the challenges to overcome as well as recommendations on how to improve this region’s connectivity for research and education. Since the launch of this report, we have come to appreciate that this connectivity inequity is not only an issue in Northern Ontario, but in many rural and remote communities across the province. As a result, ORION set out to create the ORION Rural Remote Broadband initiative (ORRB), starting with an advisory group.

Working together for improved connectivity

A picture of a zoom meeting with ORRB Participants
One of our early participant meetings with the ORION Rural Remote Broadband Advisory Group

ORION is committed to engaging with our community and integrating community feedback in everything we do. For this reason, we created the ORION Rural Remote Broadband Advisory Group. Over the past four months, we convened a diverse group of advisors from different corners of the research, education and innovation community, as well as specialists from the private sector. In our workshops, we leveraged their diverse range of expertise and perspectives. Our goal was to work together to determine priorities and opportunities to inform ORION’s rural and remote broadband strategy.

Our experience with the ORRB advisory group demonstrated our community’s true passion for addressing connectivity equity in Ontario. With their guidance, ORION developed a three-phased approach with community engagement at the centre of each phase. Our plan includes the following phases:

Phase 1: Conduct a research project

Our advisors recommended that we convene the voices of our community. We’ll leverage input from our advisory group and others in our community to outline and undertake a feasibility study that will help us understand where we might have the most meaningful impact in this sector. This research will inform our strategy for enabling access.

Phase 2: Secure funding

The next phase is to secure funding for prioritized network builds, based on our feasibility study. Our advisors agreed that we needed an advocacy strategy to underpin funding for organizational and sectoral sustainability.

Phase 3: Oversee Network Builds.

ORION will leverage that funding to implement and oversee network projects. We’ll work closely with community partners, ensuring that we’re making best use of budget dollars and ensuring the unique needs and contributions of the community’s anchor institutions are carefully considered. And we’ll communicate our successes so that others might learn and be inspired to do the same, scaling our impact.

Looking to the future

We are just at the beginning of our work to improve rural and remote broadband connectivity for the Ontario’s research, education, and innovation sector. If you share our passion to make research, education, and the digital economy accessible to all, please reach out to me at delilah.moysich@orion.on.ca.