June 10, 2004

Maggie Matear, Director of Operations for NEOnet believes in getting the biggest bang for the buck.  After many attempts were made to secure better telecommunications infrastructure in Northeastern Ontario, Maggie was reminded of a paper route analogy.  “Imagine that you have a choice between delivering newspapers to 10 houses on 1 block, or to 10 houses spanning 5 blocks.  Of course you would choose the route that paid you the same money for less work.”

That line of thinking was no different for telecommunication giants who, before 1999 were more interested in meeting the high density needs of southern Ontario rather than sparsely populated areas of the North.  Then came NEOnet.  NEOnet was established as a non-profit community development organization dedicated to promoting the wider acceptance and use of technology and telecommunications in Northeastern Ontario.  Founding stakeholders saw the value of creating a unified voice that brought together 60 different communities, 6 CFDCs, school boards, hospitals, economic development groups, businesses and residents.

Through the presentation of a solid business case, NEOnet caught the ear of both the public sector and the telecommunications giants.  Not only did the giants listen, they agreed to invest $43 million in telecommunications infrastructure.  Maggie reflects, “All of a sudden we were the loud voice getting the undivided attention of the big telephone companies.  By aggregating the needs of many stakeholders, the demand rose, the costs fell, and competition to offer the services increased.  The end result is that Northeastern Ontario probably has some of the best telecommunications services in North America at an incredibly low cost to the end-user.”

NEOnet also worked to improve the cellular landscape in the region.  Ellen Sinclair, Executive Director of theTimmins Venture Centre says, “ At one point, you could travel for hundreds of miles up here with no access to a cellular telephone network and no help in case of an emergency.  With the addition of 20 new towers in the NEOnet territory, we all feel more confident on our isolated northern highways.”

The CFDC funding was instrumental in getting NEOnet off the ground.  Ellen Sinclair explains, “Our regional Community Based Network leveraged $73 million in public and private sector investment.  That’s a lot of telecom activity in a region that has historically been situated on the wrong side of the digital divide!”

NEOnet’s successes continue.  They now manage an average of 20-25 new projects every year.  Since 1998, more than $80 million has been invested in Northeastern Ontario telecommunications infrastructure – quite the investment for a population base of just 120,000 spanning 200,000 square kilometers.  Maggie says, “We’re really lucky.  We developed a model that worked.  We now have telecommunication giants in our community who are playing a huge role in stimulating our economy through their establishment of new services, their sponsorship of community events, workshops, and more.”

Maggie is passionate about the efforts of NEOnet.  “The North needs to keep up with technology to survive.  We can’t afford to be left behind.  We extract the natural resources that fuel urban economies.  We just have to be at the table when infrastructure and services are being planned.”