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High-Tech Pathway to Freedom

THORNDALE - Tucked away in a condo here on London’s outskirts, there’s a glimpse of economic hope for rural Southwestern Ontario.

Fox Group is a technology consulting company that helps set up telecom systems and Internet access, with a focus on rural businesses.

The company has 14 employees spread across North America and maintains an office in the heart of downtown Toronto.

But chief executive Roberta Fox prefers to run it all from her home office in this small community northeast of London.

Fox grew up on a farm north of London and still has family in the area — her father lives in Ballymote. Her condo backs onto a pond and was priced $100,000 less than comparable property in London.

But there’s a big practical reason that makes it all work.

Her home has excellent high-speed Internet access, essential for her business. It was a selling point for the developer of the subdivision.

“We chose this property for the connectivity — 300 megabytes per second. That’s like 27 lines of the 401,” said Fox. “This property has better service than Dundas and Bay Street in Toronto.”

In July, rural Internet access got a major boost when the federal and provincial governments announced funding for the Southwestern Ontario Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT), a $281-million project that will extend fibre optic coverage to more than 300 communities with a total population of 3.5 million over the next five years.

Geoff Hogan, interim executive director of SWIFT, said access to good connectivity is a game-changer.

“It’s a fundamental building block for economic development today,” he said.

“It all depends on good connectivity.”

It has allowed tech entrepreneur businesses to get out of the Greater Toronto Area and move to smaller, depopulating rural centres that especially have lost young people and are struggling to hang on to those still there.

“It allows you to work anywhere. A lot of people have to work in the city because that’s where their job is. But entrepreneurs starting up companies can choose to live in the country. The connectivity allows them to do it,” said Hogan.

Hogan is now hiring staff for SWIFT and a decision has been made not to get a bricks-and-mortar office. He said staff will work out of their homes across Southwestern Ontario.

“We don’t need an office. We are going to get the right people for the job and not force them to relocate.”

SWIFT’s role is to end that patchwork of Internet access by gradually extending fibre optic access across the region.

Fox knows all about that patchwork.

Her company stores information banks on cell towers, Internet access and which subdivisions have high-speed providers.

Trying to get the information on your own from telecom and cable providers is often frustrating, she said.

Fox Group provides the information and can also go to bat against service providers on behalf of clients.

“We used to design, install and support the equipment, so they can’t really fool us,” said Fox, who spent 13 years on Bay Street doing technical jobs for companies such as Citibank, Hewlett-Packard, and AT&T.

Fox used to live north of Toronto and had a separate, 2,000-square-foot office that was rarely used.

Her employees now work from their homes, client’s offices or even their cars.

One works out of his RV in Florida during the winter months.

“We take our technologies with us and work wherever we want to,” she said.

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Helen Hambly says extending broadband access is just as important as roads, electricity and phone lines were in the past.

Hambly is a professor at the University of Guelph who heads the R2B2 (Regional and Rural Broadband) project.

The project compiles information and creates maps to track the progress of rural broadband allowing rural business and manufacturing.

She said the economic value of agricultural and food processing is overtaking manufacturing in the Ontario economy.

Much food production, processing and distribution is now handled online, along with energy and water use on farms.

It’s all tied to cloud-based technology dependent on broadband access.

Her team members have done studies in rural eastern Ontario showing the economy is in transition.

“People don’t want to live in downtown Oakville or Burlington any longer,” she said.

“They want to move with their family for quality of life, but they need to work from home.”

Hambly said more rural municipalities are pushing developers to include fibre optic access.

But those investing in broadband networks expect a payback and market forces haven’t always worked.

She said extending broadband has been difficult and private telecoms often say they can’t make a business case for extending service to small towns.

“Sometimes telecoms don’t try very hard,” said Fox.

“Competition is very limited, so even when there is service the rural areas are disadvantaged by paying a higher cost.

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