Suppliers offered access to ultra-high-speed network
Supply and service companies that want to test high-tech products and services for the mining industry in Ontario are getting a boost from a multi-partner initiative designed to drive innovation across the tech space.
The Next Generation Network Program (NGNP) was launched in January 2018 to support the development and implementation of ultra-high-speed digital infrastructure in Ontario through funding and – perhaps most importantly – by providing a complete digital network that companies can use to test proof of concept, develop talent, and access technical and business support.
The program is offered through a partnership between the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) and the Centre of Excellence in Next Generation Networks (CENGN), a national consortium of large multinational companies, small and medium size companies, academic partners and researchers.
With matching industry and partner contributions, the program represents an investment of more than $115 million, including $63 million from the provincial government. The funding provides a testbed for tech companies as well as an “introduction” to technology partners.
“We can connect them to an ecosystem including academia, industry, even the financial community to provide them pathways towards commercialization,” said CENGN CEO Jean-Charles (J.C.) Fahmy. “We are also funded through membership, and our members are some of the leading technology firms in this space – service providers like Bell and Telus, for example, but also equipment vendors like Cisco.”
“All of this community comes together toward the mission of helping companies commercialize their technology with the ultimate goal of strengthening the tech and networking industry in Canada.”
Mining is one of several industries that could directly benefit from the program.
“(The Ontario government) asked that we create a smart mining program,” said Richard Waterhouse, vice-president of development and marketing at CENGN. “We obviously don’t know a great deal about mining, but we know all about connectivity and networking.
CENGN is creating what is described as a province-wide network (it goes as far north as Sudbury) with core hub sites in Ottawa, Waterloo, and Toronto along with 18 second-tier locations including the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology (NORCAT) in Sudbury.
NORCAT was an obvious partner due to its goal to “support and promote local entrepreneurship, innovation, and commercialization to nurture and retain talent and ultimately provide a foundation to enable sustained economic and social prosperity for the Greater Sudbury Area.”
“We’re starting to work with organizations like NORCAT to see what the mining industry has for an appetite and what their requirements are,” Waterhouse said.
One test project currently underway is a low-power, wireless, wide area network (WAN) for underground mines designed by Ionic Engineering in Sudbury. If successful, it would be a step toward a smart mine with many small sensors about the size of a coat button that will be able to track almost anything.
“You completely wire up a mine and track everything from people, assets, temperature, humidity, and all those other environmental aspects cheaply and effectively,” Waterhouse said. “It would be a vast improvement over the WiFi that is currently being used in mines.”
The “low-power” portion of the technology is key, because it means batteries in the sensors may only need to be changed every 10 years instead of every year.
The Next Generation Network Program also includes direct funding of up to $50,000 in matched funds (including in-kind contributions) for the start-up.
Outside of the mining space, CENGN has assisted almost 100 projects, Fahmy said.
“We’ve had product launches. One company has gone public. One was acquired by a major organization. We’ve seen strategic partnerships negotiated by some of the SMEs we’ve worked with and some of the members – it’s been very active,” Waterhouse said.
Canada is behind in terms of innovation, but is “really working to catch up,” he remarked.
“Canada still needs support in this area. Speed of innovation globally is accelerating, so if we make the investments and do the right things now, we can be on par with the rest of the world. But we do need a little help to catch up.”
The response so far from mining industry-related companies has been positive.