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Telecommunications "lifeline" needed.

Surrounded by forest, residents in the village of Gogama are used to surviving without fine-dining establishments and movie multiplexes.

But getting by without high-speed Internet and cellphone coverage in such an isolated area, located on Highway 144 about halfway between Sudbury and Timmins, becomes a matter of security and social wellbeing, says the vice-chairman of the community's local services board.

"What you take for granted, we have to drive an hour-and-half for," was the message Gerry Talbot delivered to Secretary of State for Rural Development Andy Mitchell, in Timmins this past spring.

"All of our services and many of our amenities of life are in Timmins or Sudbury," says Talbot, which means having to travel in all types of weather over one of the most barren stretches of highway in Ontario to access even the most basic medical services.

What many people in dozens of northern communities take for granted, such as ability to enrol for online correspondence courses, videoconference with a medical specialist in Toronto, or simply download information off the Net, is considered a luxury in Gogama and the neighbouring villages of Shining Tree and Mattagami First Nation.

Telecommunications represents a "security lifeline," says Talbot, a lifelong resident who works as a Ministry of Natural Resources. maintenance mechanic.

"Although we're small, we're still part of the country" but, in terms of basic services Gogama is not on equal footing with the rest of Canada, he says.

Though the community receives Internet service through Ontario Northland Onlink working at a patience-testing 13-kilobytes, the number of subscriber lines into the village is maxed out, says Talbot and no more accounts are being accepted.

The lack of high-speed Internet and cellphone service in such sparsely populated places represents a major social and economic development drawback when trying to attract new forestry-related opportunities and people to the community, he says.

"It's not just a matter of people wanting to call for a pizza on the way home from work, it's matter of business and safety," says Maggie Matear, director of NEOnet.

"High-speed connectivity is not a luxury, it's an essential service and part of what makes is."

Matear is hoping to gather such stories from residents, businesses and organizations from under-serviced areas across the Timiskaming-Cochrane district in staging a telecommunications summit for Timmins in late September.

Because there is no market density in places like Gogama, there is no business case, and thus no incentive for telecommunications to come in, she adds.

"The market looks after things that are going to increase shareholder value," says Matear. "Yet we're the ones who need it the most."

Matear's Timmins-based non-profit technology group has been beating the bushes for grassroots support for more than a year in its. attemtp to lobby senior levels of government for funding support to extend essential telecommunications of high-speed Internet and cellphone coverage to these outlying villages.

Her agency's campaign has produced more than 50 letters of support from politicians, including MP Ray Bonin, as well as area employers such as Gogama Forest Products, Domtar and the local ambulance service.

In outlining the area's needs, the findings from NEONet's summit will be packaged and sent to Industry Canada and federal minister Allan Rock this fall, who is heading up a revived nationwide innovation agenda effort, known as Canada's Innovation Strategy, to expand broadband service to rural and remote areas.

It is a followup to Brian Tobin's failed $1-billion Broadband. Task Force attempt last year, but with a more broad-based strategy factoring in education, health, research and knowledge-based opportunities.

The federal department has already staged a regional summit in Thunder Bay, and has plans for such an event in Sudbury this fall to come up with a coherent national strategy to get more households and businesses online.

Matear estimates the preliminary cost to connect the whole Cochrane-Timiskaming region with fibre optics and service access points straight up the James Bay coast at between $40 million and $50 million.

That is where government partnerships with business must come in, says Matear.

But the biggest battle is convincing the political decision-makers from urban ridings why government should subsidize high-speed Internet and cell, service to remote rural areas.

Applications such as telemedicine represent a basic universality of service for all Canadians to increase opportunities for economic development in education, employment and health care she says.

Gogama, which recently assembled an economic development plan, identified high-speed Internet and cell coverage as priority items.

Area forestry and ambulance crews are equipped with tow-way radios to communicate, says Talbot, but winter snowmobile tourists, motorists travelling Highway 144 and contractors working back in bush are not as fortunate.

"Don't look at the population base, look at the big picture."

Matear says the lack of cellphone coverage presents a "tremendous safety concern."

"You can go from the cutoff where Highway 144 meets 101 and drive for 250 kilo-metres without cell service. Though the road is well-travelled, it's conceivable to be in an accident and no one comes by for two hours."

Though a date for NEONet's innovation summit has not been finalized, both Northern College and College Boreal's Timmins' campuses are under consideration for conference sites.

Videoconference links will be established with New Liskeard, Kirkland Lake and Kapuskasing.
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Author:Ross, Ian
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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